“The Blight didn’t settle for humanity. It was a greedy beast, robbing the very life from the earth itself. Livestock died by the hundreds of thousands and once healthy crops withered and perished. It was one matter for people to die off, it was another for the land to join them. From that point on, people began to lose hope.
“Without hope people became ugly things.”
Unique, gut-punching, terrifying, brilliant! Those are just some of the words I would use to describe the post- apocalyptic grimdark fantasy “Godless Lands” by author Sean Crow.
The setting of the book is a horrific medieval-inspired world which has fallen victim to the aforementioned blight. This has destabilized everything. The ruling monarch and family have perished. Food is extremely scarce. Most former major cities have become walled fortresses, hoarding the remnants of edible food for its denizens. Zombie-like rabid former humans caused by the Blight, known as Withers, ravage the lawless open countryside – the Godless Lands – consuming human flesh.
From the chaos, with most of the nobility dead or ineffective during the epidemic, Baron Taegis of Brightridge has arisen as a man with a plan. He’s locked down his domains, forcibly evicted anyone displaying signs of the Blight, and with his servants called “Doves” rooting out and killing anyone infected, while his methods are barbaric, some semblance of order has been maintained amongst the chaos.
Taegis’ right hand man is known as Arlo “The Death Knight”. Arlo roams the streets, efficiently executing anyone who carries the disease. A former great warrior, who felt compelled to put down his own family once they became sick, he is tortured by their memory, but committed to doing what he believes is saving lives, by killing those who spread the Blight. He has faith in his overlord, Taegis, but Taegis seems to be losing his grip on reality. Still, Arlo can’t refuse his lord’s directive to track down Taegis’ wife and daughter who have escaped Taegis and run off into the Godless Lands.
Ferris, a Blight-infected former soldier, who is half-Withers, has yet retained his humanity. He’s a vagrant in the Godless Lands, but by chance he encounters the fleeing Bethany and Katrina, Taegis’ estranged wife and daughter. Knowing they have little hope to survive in the Godless Lands, Ferris decides to help them find relative safety. He takes the risk to lead them to a sheltered community known as the Farm, where Ferris once lived. But the Farm’s inhabitants are endangered by Ferris’ actions, because the brutal, cannibalistic Butcher of Riven is hunting for the secret location of the farm, planning to dine on the flesh of its dwellers.
The characters in “Godless Lands” were exceptionally well done. Forced into more “grey” behaviours by the Blight, the reader sees how the characters are presented with difficult moral decisions where survival is paramount, and honour is a shaky concept when one facing death by disease or starvation, and violence becomes the fallback for self-preservation.
Arlo was one of my favourite players. He believes those who shelter dying infected are selfish and dangerous to society as a whole. He carries the scars of what he does, hoping to hold onto some shred of the concept of “honour”, but feeling he’s failing miserably. He seems immune to the Blight, though by rights he should have died of it a long time ago considering all the exposure he’s had to it. He’s duty-bound, complicated, and overall a great character.
The pragmatic members of the farm, like Donovan, Zia, Rigby, Danny, and Igs are characters the reader will definitely root for, as noble people who are forced to make terrible sacrifices to protect their community. Ultimately they are striving for peace, some sense of normalcy amidst the madness, love, family, and some kind of future for the next generation. They will pull at your heart strings, and you will mourn when not all of them make it out alive.
The themes in the book are extremely compelling. What do we as humans turn into in our most desperate times? Crow’s answer would seem to be: typically, animals, but with exceptions. We see the best and worst of human nature in the novel, and everything in between. Madness, torture, cannibalism, dementia, euthanasia, PTSD, despair, and more are challenging issues touched in the novel. But the book is surely not without hope and optimism, and the devotion to family and friends, self-sacrifice, and valour displayed by some of the characters truly shines through.
Less than 250 pages, this book is written in a lean and efficient fashion, with tight, impactful prose, while still allowing plenty of space to get to know the characters, their motivations and thought processes very well. The action scenes are fantastic, tense, some downright scary. With the addition of the prospect of the Withers taking a bite out of your favourite characters, adding palpable dread to the narrative, at times the book felt like a horror novel.
A fantastic dark fantasy novel about what happens when a medieval-like society degenerates into near depravity, “Godless Lands” is a small book that packs a lot of great elements into its relatively few pages. Highly recommended!