Grand Central Publishing/Hachette Book Group, $26.00, 400 pages, ISBN 978-1-4555-2824-0
Ever had the flu? Not a run-of-the-mill cold with sniffles and sneezing, but the real deal, with chills, fever, congestion . . . the kind that makes every bone on your body ache and hurt so much you just can’t get out of bed? The kind that can put you in the hospital if you’re not careful. The kind that can kill a human, and sometimes does. It’s an experience which anyone who’s had doesn’t want to repeat. But the flu virus is tricky. It mutates. It can cause a pandemic, which many scientists predict will eventually happen, given that every year brings with it a new and often more virulent strain with every random throw of the genetic dice.
The Dead Lands by Benjamin Percy, postulates a future in which 150 years have elapsed since a fatal strain of airborne flu has decimated the human race, causing the collapse of civilization. Tens of hundreds of millions have died, and solar radiation coupled with radioactive fallout from unattended nuclear power plants has caused most of the surviving mammals, fish, fowls, and reptiles to have an infinite variety of nasty mutations. In the city of St. Louis, Missouri, survivors of the initial flu outbreak walled off the downtown area, renamed it Sanctuary and rejected all outside contact. After 150 years however, the situation has changed. Radically. They think they’re the last human beings on earth, and the residents are slowly starving. They’re down to eating rats and insects, and dying of dehydration due to a multiple-year drought and skimpy water rations. At the same time, the beleaguered residents are being held as virtual prisoners by a dictatorial governor whose sadistic sheriff and his team of well-cared for deputies enforce his decisions. No one is allowed to leave Sanctuary. What had been walls to prevent outsiders from coming in, were now being used to keep insiders from getting out. Conditions are so dire that open rebellion is a possibility. Folks are unhappy, hungry and getting more desperate by the day when a rider on horseback comes in from the west. A girl. She’s a mutant, with eyes that are all pupil and some hidden talents she keeps to herself. She tells wild tales of fertile land, with food and rainfall in abundance far to the west of them. She’s thrown in jail, her information suppressed by the authorities and disclaimed as lies. But an idea, once loosed, fires the imagination and can’t ever be contained again. A small band of renegades, led by a woman named Clark, and a reclusive scholar named Lewis Meriwether break the stranger out of her cell and the tiny band escapes from Sanctuary. They head west, in an epic recreation of the expedition of 1804, but this time it’s through the dead lands, as everything outside the walls is known. Flesh-eating monsters, tyrants, sadists, nuclear wastelands, environmental catastrophes, heroes and heroines, love affairs, an epic trek into a vast unknown uncharted territory, and an examination of the undying human desire to be free all make The Dead Lands, a novel that’s large in scope and unforgettable in nature. It’s appeal won’t diminish over time in my opinion, because the elements are timeless and universal. That makes it a novel all fantasy lovers won’t want to miss!