Battle for the Wastelands
Matthew W Quinn
I think that the first thing that caught my eye about Battle for the Wastelands is the quality of the book cover, and the striking imagery to be found within it. Set against a background of ominously grey and black clouds, and a foreground of shattered, broken terrain, a man on horseback stares up into the sky. We can’t see his face or his expression, but the artistry by illustrator Matthew Cowdery is of such high quality that we can tell he is certainly nervous, apprehensive even. His horse seems to replicate the feeling, one leg raised and head turned. The objects of their concern are clear: the fleet of airships descending towards them from out of the clouds. Their intentions are unclear, but certainly don’t seem to be friendly, a supposition supported by the back-cover blurb that promises flesh-tearing cannibals, desolate terrain and plenty of desperate, brutal fighting. Taken together, it all seems to point towards an action-packed and entertaining post-apocalyptic thriller from author Matthew W. Quinn.
Quinn certainly knows how to pull the reader into one of his stories, with the opening pages of the novel rapidly establishing the setting, protagonist and even glimpses of backstory and future obstacles simultaneously, all in a deeply engaging manner. Andrew Sutter barely escapes with his life while hunting and killing two mutated animals, terrifying apex predators known as Rippers, in the hope of getting enough meat for his own family. Having succeeded thanks to quick reactions and his trusty rifle, he returns to his hometown of Carroll Town only to discover that soldiers from the Flesh-Eating Legion have arrived at the town to demand tribute. When it becomes apparent that the near-starving townspeople cannot meet their exorbitant demands, an attempt by the Legionnaires to take flesh as an alternate tribute leads to violence and bloodshed, and then the threat of dire retribution. The town eventually destroyed around him, Sutter finds himself throwing his lot in with a group of desperate rebels as they wage war on the Legion and its terrifying master.
There are some novels you pick up where it feels like the plot has only ever existed within the pages of what’s been written by the author; that there’s been no past and no history involved, and that the wider universe really hasn’t been considered at all, or at best been haphazardly fleshed out. That certainly isn’t the case with Battle for the Wastelands, and as the plot unfolds, Quinn leavens it with numerous quietly subtle references to events that have occurred, both recently and much further in the past, and have led to the current situation for all involved. A great deal has occurred prior to the opening of the novel, a mixture of politicking, battles and cultural shifts that Quinn deftly blends together to give the novel a feeling of permanence and continuity: this is merely the latest chapter in a very long story that has run through this strange, post-apocalyptic landscape. Taken all together, it brings you into the story and makes you curious to know more, even when the last page has come to an end – there’s obviously far more to come, and many locations and events to explore that have barely been touched upon by the author.
That level of detail, always carefully handled and doled out in subtle references and teasing hints, extends to the plot as well. While it starts out as the desperate, panicking journey of Andrew Sutter fleeing from the Flesh-Easting Legion, Quinn cleverly expands the scope of the novel, giving us the viewpoints of the Merrills – the remnants of the faction that used to rule over Carroll Town and the surrounding lands – and the Flesh-Eating Legion and the mighty empire it forms. Indeed, the maintenance of that empire by the dictator Grendel is one of the most engaging and fascinating parts of the novel, as Quinn gives us Grendel’s viewpoint. As so many revolutionaries and dictators have discovered in history, forging an empire is actually the easiest part of empire-building: retaining that power and wielding it, while ensuring you have a dynasty to hand it over to, is quite another matter. With no external foes to fight, petty warlords, mutants and worse begin to bicker underneath Grendel’s iron fist, forcing him to cross the expanse of his empire to keep allies in line, ruthlessly crush dissent, and ensure that his hard-won domain doesn’t disintegrate from under him. It’s all skilfully written and plotted, and unfolds in such a confident and captivating manner that you can’t help but be glued to the pages as they turn, and in turn bodes well for the future of the series.
The post-apocalyptic landscape is also incredibly well-developed, with Quinn avoiding the pitfalls common to the genre by setting the plot in a geographical area that I couldn’t place in a real-world context outside of some aspect of the continental United States. Instead, the vast swathes of desert, with towns and the occasional city allow Quinn to create his on unique world, shorn of the usual real-world locations that are so often clumsily crowbarred into the plot to knowingly wink at the reader. There’s no radioactive ruins of Las Vegas or Washington D.C. for the characters to wander through, or fractured Statue of Liberty standing forlornly in the distance, to trigger some clumsy information dump about the state of the world. Instead, when there are references to the ‘Old World’ as it’s known to those in the Wasteland, they’re used in a manner that firmly demonstrates Quinn’s understanding of the old axiom ‘show, don’t tell’; he opts for the subtle approach in world building, rather than beating the reader over the head with decayed landmarks and pop-culture references like so many authors in the genre. We get glimpses old ancient technology discovered in the shifting sands, but more often the co-option of Old World technology with post-apocalyptic adaptations, such as a new Telegraph system, dirigibles and rare weapons like repeating rifles and grenades. But then there are elements that completely throw you off-guard and hint at something being radically different as a result of whatever catastrophic event ended the Old World – not only the brutal mutants and flesh-eaters found under Grendel’s tenuous control, but the strange appearance of winged dinosaurs that are accepted as normal by the inhabitants of the Wasteland. It’s an engaging melange of concepts that Quinn meshes together flawlessly, and I look forward to seeing it expanded upon in future titles.
Battle for the Wastelands is one of the most original, engaging and well-written post-apocalyptic novels I’ve encountered for a very long time, bringing to mind the Broken Empire trilogies written by Mark Lawrence in the way they deftly fuse together an apocalyptic past with an imaginative post-apocalyptic present. Quinn really captures the hard-scrabble, near-poverty life of being on the frontier in the post-apocalypse, and doesn’t hold back from demonstrating the brutal, kill-or-be-killed nature of that reality without it becoming voyeuristic or unwarranted. Instead he carefully links it together with a multi-layered and often thought-provoking plot that sweeps you along, linking political machinations and cultural shifts with extremely well-written action sequences that let you almost smell the gunpowder, blood and gore as they rage. Taken all together, Battle for the Wastelands really is a masterpiece that Quinn has obviously taken his time in crafting, and I for one will be eagerly awaiting the next titles in the series, which I understand include a self-contained novella focusing on Grendel’s ambitious son, as well as the next full novel in the series. If you only read one entry in the post-apocalyptic genre this year, then you would be extremely hard-pressed to find a better choice.