As far as these few survivors know, from their vantage behind the high walls of The Sanctuary, “the observeable world” has perished. Beyond their city’s walls spans a land of unknowable nightmares, a wasteland seemingly devoid of humans but haunted by new monstrous mutations, arid with frightful radiation.
In The Dead Lands, a fatigued group clutches to a fading sense of civilization (and deluded patriotism) in a future St. Louis, Mo.: the only place, it is assumed, to have successfully staved off a new strain of flu that, after 150 years, has wiped out the entire human species.
That’s until a mysterious, pint-sized traveler named Gawea, with piercing, pitch-black eyes, wanders to the Sanctuary, coming from the West and speaking of an outpost in Oregon, centered around a mystical shaman-like luminary calling himself Aran Burr. This catches the attention of the shrewd and introverted curator of the Sanctuary’s museum, an essentially ostracized man thought to be a wizard himself, named Lewis Meriweather.
Sound familiar? Well, we soon meet one of the Sanctuary’s top sentries, a cunning, hard-edged young woman named Mina Clark. She doesn’t know what to think of this strange, young traveler and her claims of fresh water, crops and civilization, out there in “the dead lands…,” but she certainly doesn’t agree with the villainous mayor’s harsh decision to outright execute this seemingly harmless girl.
Eager to evade the oppressive regime of this wicked, Prince John-ish mayor and his comparably nefarious Sheriff of Nottingham-esque lackey, Clark implores Lewis to join her. Clark, her brother, a doctor and a handful of other bold travelers, leave on a daring mission—not just to save the girl, but to then breakout of this prison of a “sanctuary” and head West.
This is where it gets supernatural. Because it becomes certain that young Gawea is “different,” eventually, we discover that Lewis also shares an extraordinary ability of hers, one that has caused Lewis to experience these feverish, lucid-dream visions of Burr, silver beard and all, beckoning him westward.
“Magic is just a word people use for what they can’t understand…” Gawea says, both defending and encouraging Lewis’ burgeoning powers.
But once you get out into the wastelands, you have to deal with freak storms, ravenous wolves and human-sized albino bats…Be prepared!
Sure, at first glance, Percy’s book is a quirky, post-apocalyptic retelling of Lewis & Clark’s historic expedition to the Pacific Northwest (with Gawea as Sacagawea). But don’t make that mistake. Percy has both a cinematic and a scientific eye, able to evoke a Road Warrior-esque vibe as much as he can break down some hard facts on the scary repercussions of a pandemic of this scale.
Though he does outright advocate for a more conservationist agenda in a couple of starkly descriptive paragraphs of this dystopia, he also corrects the narrative back to the inherent excitement of the genres that he’s blending: horror, wilderness-survival tales, supernatural suspense and even a bit of action.
If I elaborated on the horrific imagery (much like McCarthy’s The Road,) you wouldn’t believe me if I used the word “fun” to describe this read. But, in some ways, the book still is a fun ride. It’s a bit of Indiana Jones’ adventurous whimsy with a bit of X-Men-esque mutant powers. Unknowable odds for a fellowship, of sorts, to make a journey together across an unforgiving land! There are a lot of familiar ingredients from classic adventure tales; maybe fun isn’t the word. Gripping, for sure.
Eventually, a beautiful and intricate metaphor for enlightenment begins to materialize in the narrative; breaking out of the ignorance-inducing walls of the Sanctuary to “see that everything is connected,” and transcend any self-centered view of the world.
“If only they could remain everlastingly in motion,” Percy writes, detailing Gawea’s longing, as she attains a sense of camaraderie with her travelers. “…if only their journey could never end….”
And in that sense, we should always continue journeying; whatever kind of journey that might be, that calls us toward a comparable enlightenment. That’s one reading of Dead Lands. Or, you could go in just to indulge the side of you that loves horror tales, badass Western braggadocio and even some Hunger Games-esque life-or-death severity.
And no journey towards enlightenment, it seems, is without its (freaky) pitfalls. For as our heroes harrowingly hike across the dead lands, before they can reach their destination, Gawea knows all too well that “…the danger is out there… And she knows if it does not find them, she will eventually lead them to it…”