Review: Pilgrimage to Hell

Pilgrimage To Hell (Deathlands Series)Pilgrimage To Hell
by Jack Adrian

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Deathlands 1: Pilgrimage to Hell / 0373625014

I'm a fan of the Deathlands series, although I can't quite put my finger on why. They're pretty much gun-'n'-torture fantasies that take place in an apocalyptic America where might makes right and men are real men and women are real women and death is always lying just around the corner. Not the sort of thing I usually eat up, but the setup is so fascinating that I can't quite look away -- each book is a very careful variation on the same themes and it's delightful to see what the bevy of authors who write these books will come up with next. (I've heard them described as popcorn -- no nutritional value whatsoever, but you can't stop eating! Er, reading!)

I recently decided to re-read my Deathlands novels, so I've been going through in order. "Pilgrimage to Hell" is the first book in the series, and... it could be better. The first 30 novels of the series are credited to Laurence James as the author, except for this one who is co-credited with Jack Adrian, and I think Adrian's writing style differs strongly from the clean sharp prose that characterizes James' novels in the series. "Pilgrimage to Hell" seems to be written with a very limited budget for periods; every sentence seems to stretch on for miles until you arrive gasping at the end, trying to suss out what the author is trying to convey. The prologue is especially guilty of this: I'm sure the intricate details of how the Cold War ruined the entire planet was very fascinating at one time, but whew, it comes across as a bit of overkill now.

Unfortunately, if you're going to get the world-building setup and character backstories, you'll have to read "Pilgrimage to Hell" before moving on to the better-paced novels in the series, so I do recommend it for new fans, but with the understanding that the series definitely picks up after this first book. So let's talk about the content.

"Pilgrimage to Hell" is a rather good series starter, plot-wise. We're introduced to the concept of Deathlands (an apocalyptic America) and the main characters who will define the series as a whole: the Trader, an older man who has made a name for himself as a traveling merchant; Ryan Cawdor, a one-eyed security officer who leads the Trader's convoys; J.B. Dix, an unassuming man with an intense love for guns and laconic wit; Krysty Wroth, a red-haired mutant with supernatural strength; and Doc Tanner, an old-fashioned gentleman who belongs to a time before the apocalypse. A series of well-timed coincidences and betrayals throw the group together and they leave the safety of the convoy in order to explore the entirety of Deathlands, searching for a place of peace where they can live happily and safe all their days.

If Deathlands books had movie ratings, they would all be rated R or higher, and "Pilgrimage to Hell" is no exception. This book contains discussions of rape, sexual sadism, bestiality, violence, slavery, torture, and lots and lots of guns and death. Pretty much every possible Trigger Warning is contained in this book alone, and while normally I would find all this darkness overwhelming in a book, there's still somehow a lightness of tone over everything that makes it easier to read -- maybe because we know that nothing will ever truly phase the main characters.

If you're interested in reading the Deathlands series, I almost recommend starting with Book 2 in the series, "Red Holocaust", and working back to this one if you like that one enough to keep going. If you don't like "Red Holocaust", you won't like "Pilgrimage to Hell", but if you *do* like "Red Holocaust", you'll want to come back and pick up the pieces you missed.

~ Ana Mardoll

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