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Robison Wells' 'Dead Zone' explores superpowers, terrorism and war
"Dead Zone" by Robison Wells is the sequel to "Blackout." - photo by HarperCollins

If Robison Wells could have any one superpower, it would be perfect recall.

“I know it’s a boring power,” Wells said. He has several mental illnesses, and “one of the things that goes along with that is that I have really bad memory. One of the things I really miss is to instantly recall information.”

It’s the superpower he’s given to Josi, a character in his young adult novels “Blackout” and the sequel “Dead Zone” (HarperTeen, $17.99), which is scheduled to be released on Tuesday. She is one of the teenagers affected by a virus and as one of the side effects has developed a superpower.

In “Blackout,” trios of teens with superpowers, from being able to manipulate stone to super strength to the power to implant thoughts, have been terrorizing the United States by destroying infrastructure, landmarks and even cities.

The U.S. government rounded up teens, checking them for the virus and any powers, which could include Josi’s photographic memory, the ability to fly, throw fire, change colors of objects, instantly count a group, have hot breath, be invisible or super hearing and sight. The ones with powers useful to combat the terrorists are recruited to help the military, including Aubrey with her invisibility, Jack with his super hearing, Josi with her instant recall and Krezi with her ability to throw fire.

It’s a chaotic time, especially when some of the teens with superpowers, or lambdas as the military calls them, are terrorists and use their powers to misdirect and turn people against their own teams.

“Dead Zone” picks up where “Blackout” left off — the U.S. has been invaded via Alaska, and with the crippling of the country through the teen trios, it’s left the country vulnerable. Especially when the enemy has something, possibly a lambda, that is shutting down anything electrical, rendering everything from watches to airplanes and weapons guidance systems useless.

Aubrey, Jack, Josi, Krezi and other lambdas are going through a kind of basic training when the book opens and are quickly sent up to the Northwest to help combat the invading Russians, figure out what their weapon is and stop them.

As it's a story about terrorism and war, there is fighting, death and destruction, but none of it is graphically described. There is also some occasional mild swearing, and romance doesn't go beyond stolen kisses.

The teenagers’ superpowers also come with side effects — Aubrey needs glasses, Jack gets migraines and Josi is at times mentally overwhelmed. A boy with super strength has brittle bones and one of Aubrey’s friends had liver failure from the pheromone she had that makes people like her.

“My whole point was trying to not write about superheroes, but write a book about superheroes that is more realistic — which is still wildly unrealistic — about being more grounded in reality than the average comic book,” Wells said.

As the team of teenagers is paired with a Green Beret unit and sent to the front lines, they each have a different attitude and perspective about the war.

Aubrey doesn’t want to kill people and fears she is losing her conscience. Tabitha, who has telekinetic abilities, really just wants to go home.

Krezi, at 15, is one of the youngest of the group — too young to actually join the military — and is simply scared. Zasha, one of the invaders, sees using her flying ability as an honor to serve her country.

Wells, who was an undergraduate studying political science in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center, said that as much as the conflicts in the Middle East have been debated, a draft hasn’t been instituted.

“The one thing we haven’t had that really defined earlier generations is that we haven’t had a draft,” said Wells, whose grandfathers were drafted during World War II. “That is an entirely different mindset for people to deal with.”

Wells wanted to share through his characters grappling with these issues as many perspectives as possible on war.

Wells pointed out that he wrote an ending to “Dead Zone” that wraps up all of the story lines, adding that “it’s not going to be three.”

The ending to a previous novel, “Feedback,” left a lot of unanswered questions, and he’s written an epilogue that will be published as part of the “Altered Perceptions” anthology now scheduled to be released in October.

The “Altered Perceptions” project was spearheaded by author Brandon Sanderson to help Wells, whose mental illnesses include panic disorder, agoraphobia, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder, pay off debt that includes medical debt, $38,000 to the IRS and student loans, according to the project’s website,

The project raised more than $120,000 — exceeding the $110,000 goal. The anthology, a collection of deleted scenes, bonus chapters, alternate edits, previously unpublished short stories and other writings from a variety of authors, was one of many perks for those donating.

“I was absolutely stunned,” Wells said of the result. “We set the bar so high with the thought that we would never reach it, but we said as long as we’re doing this, let’s put it as high as we need to be.”

Wells was also amazed at the people who bought some of the perks — people who not only paid for a dinner with him, his brother Dan Wells and Sanderson, or to have a game night with Robison and Dan, but also paid to travel across the country to do it — and “just the generosity of these people in supporting me and my mental illness.”

The extra $10,000 that was raised went to author Sarah Eden, who also has several mental illnesses along with rheumatoid arthritis and liver disease.

“It was a delight to call her and say ‘do what you want with it,’ ” Wells said.

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