Tag Archives: Deathlands

Fury’s Pilgrims

51xi6zpicnlDid I mention that the Deathlands series is over, as of earlier this year? Probably. It’s just so weird to me that this thing has an ending, 30 years after it started. Especially when I compare to my infinite and infinitely expanding Marvel comics thing, you know? I mean, I’m still only to 1992 here, so it’s not like I’m in any danger of running out, it’s just strange.

That said, it’s also strange that I’ve gotten so far into a men’s adventure series and it still shies away from being fully episodic, misogynistic, and militaristically triumphal at every turn. Fury’s Pilgrims gives our heroes another momentary glimpse at the pre-nuke world, with its time travel equipment and space stations and other wonders, all tantalizingly out of reach and all gradually decaying into uselessness.

I mean, some of the entries in the series are more hopeful than that description? But so far, I have to admit that Deathlands is not a rise from the ashes version of the post-apocalypse; this is not an aspect I’d ever really considered before. Still, I’m not opposed to grimdark, and even if I were, this is not really that. The characters find love, and sometimes long term peace, and keys to their past and the collective past alike, even if never quite as fast as I’d like for the latter. But I’ve got like 100 plus books to go, so I should probably give them some time, eh?

Moon Fate

51B5enw1nlLApparently, the Deathlands series is completed, at 75 books, as of sometime last year. That’s kind of cool, because it implies that I might ever finish[1]. Not a habit I’m used to, what with Marvel comics that have been published continuously since 1961 with no end in sight.

I’m not sure that has any special relevance, but I learned it while doing research into the author of Moon Fate. (James Axler is a farm name, you see, assigned to any number of actual writers in the series, but not a real person in his own right.) The sad reason for this research was that there was a tonal shift so drastic, I briefly hoped there had been a change of the usual author to explain it. Here’s an implausible number of words about that.

Weirdly, even now, I can’t tell if I’m being unrealistic. In thumbnail, Ryan Cawdor is returning from the events of Chill Factor to rejoin his friends, but due to a series of the kind of tragic event that is so typical in a post-apocalyptic hellhole, they end up split once more, with he and his girlfriend captured by vengeful mutant “stickies”, so called because they are part of a common lineage in the Deathlands whereby their arms are covered with incredibly strong octopus-like suckers, strong enough to strip flesh right off any “norms” they might come in contact with.

And here is where problem one crops up. Normally stickies are, in addition to being strong and violent death machines, quite lowly ranked on the intelligence scale. Which is fine, killer mutants are a staple of any nuclear holocaust. But they were lead by an especially intelligent throwback to humanity, who of course was a figure from Ryan’s past. I don’t mind that they had a bad time together and the stickie wanted revenge. I mind that, after going to all the trouble of making him a leader who was intelligent and strong-willed enough to organize his troops instead of the usual ravening hordes, the story still treated them as mindless enemies. A story where the mutants could also be human would have been much cooler.

In any case, not enough to put me off the story, but then there was a rape scene in which a female stickie took Ryan into her quarters for to satisfy her carnally. And… I mean, there was only the one mostly human throwback, so I’m not saying I have a problem with the run of the mill mutant being a grotesquerie. And if the rape scene had been reversed, with lead female character Krysty Wroth being the victim, that wouldn’t have been any better, for all kinds of reasons. Still, the scene where Ryan was being forced to perform oral sex was just relentlessly anti-female, in a way I have thusfar thought this series was better than. And like I said, I read over the caveats and feel like I’m being way too sensitive about this; because yes the scene could have been left out entirely, but once you accept its presence, I can’t really see anything unrealistic about it. All the same, it felt skeevy, and I hope it doesn’t happen again.

Third, not that I much care about this, and especially in comparison to the other two, but I have no earthly idea what the title had to do with anything at all.

Anyway, leaving aside those complaints, the book was at least a nice change of pace from the standard “teleport somewhere, right a wrong, move on” template the series quickly fell into. I mean, yes, that is technically exactly what happened, but the trappings were all different, what with resuming from a split party, visiting friends, and staying in town for months rather than days or hours.

[1] Given that this book is #16, I’m already 20% of the way through!

Chill Factor

51Z1R4iI8nLIt is pleasing that I have basically infinity comics to read, because sometimes I fail to plan trips correctly and run out of book too fast. In part this is certainly due to being kind of sick and not wanting to do anything besides read, unexpectedly, but also in part this is because the Deathlands books are comic-like in their own way. Obviously, they read extremely fast, but also they are similar in that they have recurring villains and in that they lay the groundwork for future books in the current book, so the overall story tends to feel seamless instead of purely episodic.

Chill Factor sees one-eyed killing machine Ryan Cawdor off somewhere in the extreme north to rescue his son from a sulfur mine run by Russian slavers, while dodging the tender affections of a series of badly thought out but extremely lethal, er, killing machines. Like, you know, hunter-killer security droids. T-800s by way of R2-D2. Because of handwavy reasons, he’s performing this task by himself instead of with his usual crew, and while I don’t mind that, it’s certainly time for one of the other characters to get a spotlight book.

Anyway, if you like this kind of thing, the series continues to deliver. I especially appreciated, in this case, how convincing the environment was, with most everyone’s lives measured in days or weeks rather than months. Between, you know, the constant sub-zero temperatures, the radiation, and being a slave in a sulfur mine. That said, the books don’t exist digitally, so probably it’ll only ever be just me reading them.

Dark Carnival

51VKHsxpjILI wish I read the Deathlands books a little more often than I do, although the truth of this matter is you could insert any ongoing series[1] I am reading and not yet caught up to live publication for, and that would still be a true statement. I have an embarrassment of reading wealth, I guess? Kind of.

But as much as I enjoy reading them, they’re getting harder and harder to review, because of how much continuity is piling up. I have read 14 of these over the past 7ish years (they are published quarterly, I think, so yes, this means I’m falling behind), and they’re so far not the least bit episodic. Old enemies come back, the cast changes over time, the past (both the written past and the characters’ pasts before the series opens) has consequences. All that, on top of post-apocalypse porn with a deep sci-fi bent and surprisingly[2] egalitarian gender parity, and yeah, of course I want to keep reading more.

This one, leaving out all the piled up plot, centers around dire happenings in and around an operational amusement park in Florida that is conspicuously not DisneyWorld. Also, though, let me leave you this hilarious dispatch from the 22nd Century:

Doc returned to his own room and watched some vids of a television series that Boss Larry piped through. Ryan and Krysty tried to watch it, but it seemed a plot of such staggering complexity that they gave up on it.

“It wasn’t the giant and the dwarf,” Krysty said, lying back on the huge bed. “Nor the damned fine coffee and the cherry pie. It was the woman who was dead, then Japanese, then alive again.”

[1] I mean, not Anita Blake. Seriously. But otherwise, yes.
[2] Both for the genre and the publication date. And I’m not saying it’s perfect, it’s just a lot better than could have possibly been predicted, and objectively closer to the good side of the scale than the bad side.

Seedling

51b094MgQYL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Assuming you haven’t been here long (and are unwilling to click through the Deathlands tag): post-apocalyptic 22nd Century gun porn with teleporters and whiffs of Seven Samurai, in episodic format, series approximately 100 books in length. Okay? Okay.

Since I’m still reading them, it’s probably time to stop being surprised by how compelling they are, or at least to stop mentioning it every time. The real problem is that without that or the setting summary, and without massive spoilers, it’s hard to say much of a much. Plausibly, I should not concern myself with spoilers regarding a 25 year old men’s adventure series that nobody besides me is going to read, but it’s hard to think that way. The result of all of this being, there’s maybe a sentence, tops, I can put together to explain any given book.

In the case of Seedling, Ryan Cawdor and company stumble out of the latest abandoned secret government teleport installation into uptown Manhattan (or technically probably Queens, but whatever), where they discover the biggest collection of pre-nuke hardware and memorabilia any of them have ever seen, an unexpected mutant army, the expected levels of treachery and general Deathlands deadliness[1], and a deviously clever use of the book’s title.

[1] After all, it’s not named that because you’d want to buy into the timeshare.[2]
[2] Okay, fine, two sentences. But only barely.

Latitude Zero

517LqnCryCL._SY346_Here are the important lessons I have learned from reading two Deathlands books in a row[1]:

1) Yep, they are able to catch me by surprise still, and even better, do it by meeting my expectations on one hand while utterly subverting them on another.
2) It is a bad idea to read two of them in a row. It’s not that popcorn isn’t still delicious every time you get a tub of it, it’s that you fail to get the proper impact if you have it daily.
3) Man, life really is nasty, brutish, and short. These are the good guys, and they usually try their best to help the most people, but noble self-sacrifice? Playing long odds in the hopes of saving a few more? None of that. They help when they can, but if they decide they can’t, that help ain’t coming. On the bright side, they do a pretty good job of staying alive, and they’re almost never the aggressors. But heroes? Nope.

Also, though I didn’t learn this from the specific two-in-a-row circumstances, Latitude Zero taught me that this author and/or stable of authors is really quite good at recycling villains. And getting me to empathize with them, no matter how minimally. I know I keep praising this series, so I should make a point of explaining that it’s not that they’re objectively good. It’s that they’re a post-apocalyptic sci-fi series that so dramatically transcends the limitations of the men’s adventure shelf, and in so many literary and social ways, that they are objectively Not Bad. Which is wildly unusual if not unique in the annals of that shelf, and results in my getting to read a never-ending series that is dialed into my specific proclivities.

It’s like that time when the soap opera I randomly chose to watch from the beginning as my first ever soap opera turned out to have witches, talking dolls, and portals to hell opening up under peoples’ homes. Nobody could have predicted that something so perfectly aimed at me would ever exist! Much less that I would trip over it.

[1] Because I was camping in the desert and didn’t want to a) run out of books[2] nor b) destroy my delicate electronic devices[2] nor c) bring a book whose physical form I would be worried about[2].
[2] I did not. So that worked out pretty well!

Time Nomads

51o+C5jhCvL._SY346_The good news for me is, I read more than one book while camping in the desert a couple weeks ago, and Time Nomads was every bit as solid as any book I’ve read in the Deathlands series. Which, okay, I understand that these books are first and foremost pulpy romance novels for men who prefer that most of the mushy bits be replaced by guns and also the shootings of said guns into people. But they’re apocalytic sci-fi with female characters who have many qualities other than victim and a cast that is not safe from harm at any moment. Which is to say, in some ways they’re better than many books I’ve read that are of objectively higher quality.

The book starts out on its standard, with the merry band of not-quite do-gooders teleporting into a new hidden government installation somewhere in the nuke-ravaged America of the 22nd century. But then the author proves he’s not afraid to mess with his formula by sending one of his main characters on a botulism-fueled flashback to the days before they found all the hidden teleporter pads, robots with laser guns, cryogenic pods and and towns in need of rescuing that have made the series such a delight. And okay, I admit that “flashback” doesn’t sound like that much of a formula-buster, but that’s because I’m leaving out the drastic changes that occur as the book ends.

The changes may not take, and I won’t be offended if they don’t, but the fact that I can’t be sure? That’s what impresses me about this series. Well, and also the post-apocalyptic setting, but I think everyone already knew that part.

Northstar Rising

I went with a Deathlands book to ease myself into reading not-The-Wheel-of-Time, and I have to say, it was a solid choice. (The other initial possibility was Dresden Files.) See, while I had no problem returning from screen to paper, I had a huge problem reading a book that didn’t have Rand in it. Not him specifically, but I’m not kidding either; for pretty much the first half of Northstar Rising, everything about it felt subtly wrong, like I was reading a fake book that someone was trying to convince me was the real thing.

Eventually I settled in, and this one is every bit as good as the others, though I am starting to have minor problems with the series. For one thing, the titles? Chosen seemingly at random lately. I’ll admit that they went to Minnesota, which is in the north. But otherwise, they hung out with cryogenically frozen doctors (who are a touch on the stereotyped side, alas) and giant ant swarms and vikings and barrels of radioactive waste. You know, like you do when it’s the nuclear devastated wastelands of America a hundred years in the future.

Then again, I cannot really say what I’d have named it instead, there being no common theme to pull the various events of the book together. On the other hand, they broke formula a little, and that’s probably good news. Like I say, minor problems. Certainly nowhere near enough to make me put away the mind candy.

Red Equinox

You remember those Deathlands guys, with their gender equality and their gun fetishism and their occasional mutations and their ability to teleport around the shattered ruins of the United States trying to find that perfect settlement for forever but otherwise righting wrongs while they keep ending up in the wrong place? Well, in Red Equinox, they got a callback to the second book in the series, which you undoubtedly remember is the one where they teleported for the first time, and ended up in Alaska where they could run into some invading Russians at the land bridge.

How can such a callback exist, you ask? See, this guy got to report on first American contact in the hundred years since the nuclear war, and so he got promoted home to Moscow. And meanwhile, Ryan Cawdor and company got to learn that the American embassy in Moscow has the same teleportation capability as so many of the hidden redoubts scattered around the Deathlands. None of which sounds so terrible, because you just leave, you know? Moscow is like the most dangerous place for an American to be! …too bad they broke the door you need to close to trigger the teleport sequence, eh?

Ice and Fire

51nrpwy4fylI’m reading too many of these, and they are too similar, for much in the way of in depth reviews. So I think if you are interested at all, you’ve got the premise settled in your head by now, and I can just go with sense impressions, unless something vital changes. So, here’s what’s going on in Ice and Fire.

1) More secrets from the past, via cryogenic chambers! That is definitely a cool thing, not simply for the information they have been able to glean that will help them on their way, but also because where there is one bank of cryogenically frozen people from the past, there will be more. Y’know?
2) More ambivalence about the purpose of their travels. I guess the real purpose is to eventually teleport into a place where they like what they find and want to stay there forever and grow old and fat together with lots of slightly mutated children, but I think even though that’s what they believe, they none of them would be willing to put down roots when there are more things to see and people to save. Yet at the same time, they spent the whole book seeing a big, obvious problem (otherwise happy, wealthy people living one of the better lives available in our tragic future, except the massive mutant snake-worshiping cult that has sprung up is threatening to turn them all into hate-filled religious slaves) and saying in a number of different ways, “Hey, this is not our problem, we don’t have to solve everything, we’ll just get chilled if we do”. Right up until they end, when they remembered that they’re suppose to leave the campsites cleaner than they found them. I want this ambivalence and, okay, flip-flopping to be a psychologically interesting long term problem, but the truth is that it’s probably just iffy writing. Still, I hold out hope!
3) Romance is in the air! By which I mean the guy who likes guns is awkward around the baron’s secretary and also the blonde girl that’s been associated with Doc Tanner gets tired of him being old and her vagina starts making questionable decisions for her. The second part was the worst thing in the series so far, because even though their relationship troubles have been in evidence around the edges of the previous book or two, she suddenly becomes completely unreliable out of nowhere in this book, and then is clumsily removed from the plot. It all felt very “teenager in an ’80s horror movie”, when the rest of the series has not shown any evidence of slut-shaming or indeed imbalance between the sexes on either the good or evil sides of the equation.
4) Gradual cast turnover continues as well, which I still like, even if I could stand for it to not be, y’now, clumsy like this was.

By and large: there’s still more good than bad here, even if I wasn’t so susceptible to the setting that I’d ignore the bad for as long as possible. The edges are fraying a little bit, but I see all kinds of ways to recover, so for now I’ll hold out hope that my trashy apocalypse-porn series can stay less trashy than one might expect.