As we unfortunately found out a few months ago, due to the shuttering of the Gold Eagle imprint at the close of 2015 that means that the end is very near for Deathlands. But this month, End Day comes even sooner. It is not the final book in the series (although arguably it probably should be), but it is the final book written by fan-favorite author Alan Philipson. With a time-traveling story set primarily in New York City just hours before the impending nuclear apocalypse, the companions face off against the Magus - a nemesis who goes all the way back to the original Deathlands novel Pilgrimage to Hell published all the way back in June of 1986. As I said, it’s not the series finale but it surely feels like it could be.
As a long-term fan of the series, I am the first to admit that for many years Deathlands became a bit of a slog. The neverending rotation of authors fell into a rut of predictable stories which generally amounted to nothing more than "the companions blunder into the ville of the Evil Baron of the Month, get caught up in some dastardly plot, and then ultimately defeat the Baron." More often then not, some kind of gladiatorial combat was involved. For a long stretch it seemed like the series had worn out its welcome and had nothing interesting left to say. I find it all the more tragic that now, in its final run towards oblivion, Deathlands has been featuring some of its strongest books in years. End Day carries on that trend in an imaginative story that takes the companions into a completely new and unfamiliar urban environment. The story includes plenty of non-stop action, interesting supporting characters, and some new insights into the mystery behind the Magus.
On top of that, the story also features some very sly meta commentary on the publishing industry in general, and genre series fiction in particular. The main supporting character is a not-so-thinly-veiled homage to the real-life editor of Deathlands, and Philipson effectively casts himself as a writer-for-hire contributor to such trashy pulp series as the steampunk robot Clanker, and of course Slaughter Realms. Most hilariously, in one of the action set-pieces earlier in the novel the escape is derived from the plot of a book written by Philipson's doppelganger, which if you think about it too hard becomes a meta-meta-meta commentary on storytelling. That's a lot of depth for a silly bit of pulp fiction. Even more surprisingly, at the time this novel was written Alan Philipson had no idea it would be his last Deathlands story. At the time that Harper Collins decided to fold the Gold Eagle imprint, Philipson was actually under contract to produce several more books. It is nothing but pure serendipity that End Day works so nicely as the author's goodbye to the series.
For readers who are not interested in all of the inside politics of what is happening to Gold Eagle, this is still a very strong book. The time travel leads to a certain amount of "wibbly wobbly" situations (to steal a phrase from Doctor Who), where things happen out of order and in which the same character can exist in more that on place at one time (without it being a continuity error, for a change!) One thing that Philipson has always excelled at is creating interesting secondary and tertiary characters who are introduced with just enough back story and personality quirks to be entertaining without slowing down the story. As the Magus and his minions stage a series of bold kidnappings around the city, the doctors and scientists being captured add interest and color to the proceedings. What's not to love about a genius who is trying to build a urine-based power supply? In addition, the pending threat of Skydark provides just the ticking time bomb needed to propel the story forward at breakneck speed.
Frankly, I loved this book. It has plenty of great action that is the entire purpose of the series to begin with, but it also comes packaged with the quirky and gonzo weirdness that has made Philipson such a stand-out author in the series. With better than three decades of experience, making him (I think) the longest-standing author in Gold Eagle's stable, Philipson has gone out on a high note. He may not have intended it while he was writing, but this one really feels like a love letter to the die-hard fans. Well done, Alan.