Over the past year or more, I have become more and more intrigued by a pair of series by a mythical author, James Axler, that I keep seeing on the shelves at Half-Price Books. The problem is, they run back several years, and of course the first one is never available. Right? Right? Wrong, as it happens! Not only did I find the first one, I found the first one of the older series. Unlikely, and yet I am standing here before you today to swear it is all true. The odds of finding the other first book, or this second book… but still, one takes what one can get.
Pilgrimage to Hell was written in 1986, and except for failing to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union, it handled the next dozen years fairly well. And then, of course, nuclear apocalypse provides the stage for our story, a century later. The face of North America is drastically changed via biological and chemical weaponry in the South, dramatically altered weather patterns in the Southwest, nuclear bombs along faultlines having effectively removed the West Coast, and so on. Pretty much every aspect of life is ruled by what guns you’ve been able to maintain, find, or buy. Which is why the Trader and his army are so well-regarded and so feared; he has made a career out of finding hidden caches of weapons, munitions, vehicles, and gasoline that predate the Nuke, and then taking them around and selling them to help people protect themselves from the environment, the mutants (both human and otherwise) and each other.
Of course, despite the sci-fi underpinnings and overtones, at heart it’s one of those men’s adventure type things that spends entirely too much time describing the make and model of a gun being used, the quality and quantity of brains being expelled from an exploded skull, the heft, curvature, and coloring of a pair of breasts. But surprisingly, there’s a pretty well-told tale underneath all that, with Jungian archetypes all over the place. I’m serious: this guy Ryan finds a girl who knows how to get to a utopian promised land beyond the Deathlands, has the Trader as a father figure who (spoiler alert) is not long for this world, and goes through a giant metal door in order to take his first real step along the path to this utopia, but only after defeating a guardian beast who is (and I’m still serious) named Cerberus. So, okay, it’s a hamhanded usage of Campbell’s resonance road-map, but that still leaves a lot of room for being fun and interesting in the parts of the map that aren’t as detailed.
I don’t know if I exactly recommend it, because you probably already know exactly what intersection of enough apocalypse porn and sufficient lack of gun porn is right for you. But for my part, it was a pleasant surprise that leaves me forced to keep on searching for the later volumes.
 Please note: as far as the porn porn, except for the lead chick being described in lusting detail, the women are each and all as capable as the men at every turn, so it probably isn’t nearly as bad along the feminist axis as you were expecting, and pretty much unique among books in this category that I’ve read for being so evenly written.