Book Review: The Dead Lands

The Dead Lands by Benjamin Percy

I finished The Dead Lands last night. If asked to summarize my reaction, I’d say it was okay. Not bad, but not great.

I rate it 16 out of a possible 25. (see My Book Reviews for rating explanation)

The premise: The Dead Lands is a post-apocalyptic thriller where the remnants of the human race live in a city (appropriately called The Sanctuary) surrounded by a massive wall. The unknown area beyond the wall is called The Dead Lands. Dire circumstances dictate a small group of friends travel west in search of Oregon where they must brave the Dead Lands if they hope to survive.

The Dead Lands has everything a lover of this genre would want - the post-apocalyptic feel (which Percy does a tremendous job describing), great characters, and a dangerous quest. The story had similar concepts (and I would guess was modeled after) other epics in this genre. The Passage, The Stand, and I even detected a Game of Thrones under-current at times.

The book was advertised as post-apocalyptic retelling of the Lewis and Clark explorer story. But in all honesty, other than the character names and the direction they traveled, I drew very little correlation between the historical Lewis and Clark expedition and The Dead Lands.

Here are my thoughts and ratings on The Dead Lands.

  • Craft (3) – Benjamin Percy is a terrific writer. Damn good. I’m just not sure this was a terrific story. I’ll break the craft into two categories: what worked and what didn’t work. 

o   What worked: Description. The first half of the book was phenomenal. I even referenced it in one of my other blog posts, Read Like a Writer. Percy has a terrific way with similes that, quite frankly, I’m insanely jealous of. He kills it with metaphors too. His descriptions pull on all five senses and it works! The writing flows and is fun to read.

o   What didn’t Work: Points of View (POV) – for me, there were just too many character POVs and I couldn’t make a connection. This may sound antithetical to “What Worked”, but description also got in the way of moving the story forward. The last half of the book (mainly, the last quarter of it), I didn’t want to read massive paragraphs of description anymore – I wanted stuff to happen! And it didn’t. As well, with so many characters and due to Percy’s tendency to dig deep into description, every time a new character arrived, I got bored with the great swaths of description. Percy’s use of dialogue is good, but there’s just not enough of it. At times, I found myself skimming until something started to happen or a character said something.

  • Pace (2) – I’m good with the gradual build, like a roller coaster creeping up the massive hill, and then, as it crests the top, it accelerates rapidly and becomes a thrill ride. The Dead Lands built slowly and I liked the pace starting out. I envisioned the world around me, interacted deeply with characters, and was poised for the big downhill drop going into the second half. Except, the drop never came. It just kept creeping along. There were a few things that happened, a couple of fights with creatures in the Dead Lands (the fight with the bats was especially thrilling), but that’s about it. I spent so much time jumping POVs from different characters, that I lost the connection with my favorite character, Clark. Many side characters spent a lot of time walking around thinking about stuff.  Perhaps most frustrating was the climax – it all took place in about the last 20 pages. Rushed and disjointed.

  • Characters (4) – I’ve spoken of this twice already, that there are too many character POVs, but I want to give Percy some credit too; he does a terrific job developing a character. His descriptions, the use of dialogue, and making that connection is a true talent and he possesses it. Had he focused on only 3 – 5 POVs, this would have been a completely different book. But as its written, every character we see ends up with their own POV, backstory, etc. I’m rating the character development higher than average since a lot can be learned from Percy’s talent.

  • Story (3) – The story started off strong, but then fizzled out. Not a complete crash and burn, not by any means. I’ve read other reviews of this book and many people absolutely loved it. It was good, it just wasn’t great. As I eluded to before, I think the main problem was, it just didn’t go anywhere spectacular. I’m a sucker for this genre and I love a good quest, and Percy painted a very bleak and ruined world. The quest itself had its highlights, but nothing super-awesome. I don’t want to ruin it for you, but it just didn’t quite do it for me. The highlight was Gawea, the strange girl who shows up at the Sanctuary gate. I do wish more would have been done with her.

  • Ending (3) – Opinions will vary. As I’ve stated, I wasn’t blown away. It just doesn’t wrap up nicely. There are even a few parts that simply didn’t make any sense to me. Admittedly, I’ve never been great at spotting the underlying theme of a story unless it slaps me in the face. So perhaps I missed something vital. Rest assured, though, most of the loose ends are wrapped up so that you don’t feel robbed of an ending.

I recommend reading The Dead Lands. If you like this type of story, you’ll probably like this book. Benjamin Percy is talented, no doubt about it. Enough to make me jealous. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

At worst, you’ll probably think it was at least okay. And an okay story is better than no story at all.