“The earth was burned to a blackened husk by man, armies who answered to war cries over soil they did not own. Now, years afterward, nothing remained of the world that was.” It is with these chilling words that author Scott Johnson takes our hands and leads us down a terrifying road.
Deadlands begins at the knee of a man who is old enough to just barely remember the world before the end of the war. He tells the children of machines that flew in the air, spreading fire as they went. He speaks of the sanctuary a precious few managed to find below the scorched ground, out of the poisonous air. That is where they live now, the residents of Down-Town, New Phoenix, and New Tucson, peopling their cities underground.
Soon we are introduced to Christian and his sister Cadence, residents of Down-Town. They are Guardsmen. In a post-apocalyptic world the surviving people have become strongly anti-violence, but the Guardsmen do not protect people from each other; they protect the people from “rotters.” That’s right … zombies. Sometime before the end of the war, someone came up with the bright idea of reanimating the dead soldiers to populate their dwindling armies, and now in the aftermath they roam the blasted terrain like rabid dogs with nothing to fear from the harsh environment.
Christian, Cadence, and the other Guardsmen are in charge of keeping the rotters away from the above-ground entrance to Down-Town. If the hungry undead breached their enclosure, they’d hunt down every last living person. And once bitten, they would turn as well … if they weren’t torn to pieces. Like Cadence and Christian’s parents. The two children are extremely close since Christian raised Cadence after their parents’ death when she was only a toddler.
Despite the circumstances of their existence, their lives aren’t a total disaster. Cadence has even fallen in love and is planning on marrying Skinner, a man who works below ground as a farmer. Things are not so bad. But soon rumors begin to circulate that there’s an army of rotters and they can think and organize. At first it seems absurd to the people of Down-Town, but news of the destruction of New Phoenix changes that. The Guardsmen set off to verify the news and help if they can. Their journey is one of loss, courage, discovery, and renewal.
Johnson has created a vivid nightmare world and peopled it with many amazing characters. The story drags a bit in the beginning, but once the Guardsmen reach New Phoenix and then move on to New Tucson, it really picks up, and the reality of what exists is only slightly less horrifying than the truths he reveals. Johnson creates some really ingenious twists and turns and in the end delivers a tale that is dramatic, relatable, and utterly chilling.
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