In January 1988, the Deathlands series continued with the fifth instalment, Homeward Bound. It was written by Laurence James, an English author who contributed to the first 33 novels in the series. In previous instalments, this basic group of six heroes was defined, including the complex role of leader Ryan Cawdor. After Neutron Solstice, the third volume of the series, a sky-level origin is explained concerning Ryan's childhood home and the existing family. As the title suggests, Homeward Bound is a real origin story with Ryan returning to his former home town to settle some old debts.
After the events of the previous novel, Crater Lake, the heroes enter the redoubt (like a teleportation chamber) and eventually emerge in northern New York. After quickly recovering supplies and weapons, the heroes begin a long voyage along the northeast coast. To match the typical action pattern of the series, this trek involves battles with bandits and mutants on the Mohawk and Hudson River. James' spends brief moments, allowing readers to absorb the loss and devastation of historical places as the characters pass New York City's destroyed Twin Towers (eerily prophetic), the Statue of Liberty and even a brief explanation of America's Civil War battles.
After the long coastal voyage, the heroic group arrives at Virginia's Front Royal. Ryan starts explaining some of his past to the group, including his relationship with his brother Harvey. He was the second of three sons born to Titus and Cynthia Cawdor. Ryan's mom passed away one year after he was born. When Harvey was 14, he murdered his brother Morgan and then attempted to kill Ryan. In the violent exchange, Ryan lost one eye and was given a horrible scar on his cheek. Ryan managed to escape and Harvey eventually murdered their father.
After a number of exciting chases and shootouts, the group finds a mysterious man named Nathan Freeman leading a patrol on the outskirts of a village called Sherville. This is where Ryan begins to recognize Nathan as part of the family of his past. The group discusses the Baron Harvey's brutal dictatorship over Front Royal, complete with an "orchard" of decomposing bodies that failed to comply with Harvey's strictly enforced rules. Ryan also finds out that Harvey has an evil wife and a sadistic mutated son. The plan of attack is to just waltz around Front Royal as traders hoping to infiltrate the kingdom to strategize an attack. Needless to say, things are going very badly for the group in the second half of the book as Ryan and his friends are held prisoner for a "most dangerous game" hunting exhibit.
I was only lukewarm about this series after reading the first four novels. I enjoyed the debut, Pilgrimage to Hell, but found it a little confusing and fragmented, partly due to being written by James after original author Christopher Lowder's departure. The second volume, Red Holocaust, was a more definite plot with an exciting premiss of Ryan fighting the Soviet Union in Alaska. The subsequent Neutron Solstice and Crater Lake weren't particularly memorable and became very predictable.
Homeward Bound is by far the best entry in the series thus far. It marks a milestone in Deathlands with so many events from the past and the near future having an important impact on these characters. The action sequences, dialogue and expansive second half were gripping, violent and often humorous. The chase segments at the end were phenomenal and the threesome of villains was interesting enough to keep them from being just one-dimensional characters. All in all, it was absolutely a solid novel and that gives me great hope for the next installments. I think James really turned the corner here and I'm expecting nothing but great things moving forward.
Note - This novel was the premise for the SyFy channel's 2003 film.
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