Before I get started on this review, I have one thing to ask: is Chuck Wendig an *actual* time traveller? Because while this book might be marketed as dystopian, it reads more like the troubled diary of someone who’s seen the future.
Wanderers is a hefty tome: at almost 800 pages, it pushed me over the hold luggage weight at Heathrow and snapped two straps on my bag. But despite the length, it’s a quick read. It’s intoxicatingly easy to read, thanks to the pop culture references (Homer Simpson walking backwards through a hedge, Jurassic Park, Stephen King) and realistic, natural dialogue. Some of the language is slightly cliched (yep, I did start to count how many times characters ‘melted’ into each other), but honestly, I just didn’t care one single bit. And for me, that’s saying something. Usually you can give me the slowest, most boring plot, and if the writing is magical, I’m sold.
A Hollywood blockbuster on paper
A decadent rock star. A deeply religious radio host. A disgraced scientist. And a teenage girl who may be the world’s last hope.
Shana wakes up one morning to discover her little sister in the grip of a strange malady. She appears to be sleepwalking. She cannot talk and cannot be woken up. And she is heading with inexorable determination to a destination that only she knows. But Shana and her sister are not alone. Soon they are joined by a flock of sleepwalkers from across America, on the same mysterious journey. And, like Shana, there are other “shepherds” who follow the flock to protect their friends and family on the long, dark road ahead.
For on their journey, they will discover an America convulsed with terror and violence, where this apocalyptic epidemic proves less dangerous than the fear of it. As the rest of society collapses all around them – and an ultraviolent militia threatens to exterminate them – the fate of the sleepwalkers depends on unraveling the mystery behind the epidemic. The terrifying secret will either tear the nation apart – or bring the survivors together to remake a shattered world.
Wanderers is like watching a Hollywood blockbuster trilogy in your mind. It’s addictive, compulsive reading and I 100% pissed all my friends off by refusing to put it down while on holiday. (yes I did consider missing out on David Guetta to read this book. No I was not allowed).
The plot is superb. It drops enough breadcrumbs to make you think you’re on the right path, while it watches you take endless wrong turns. But it feels like Wendig is discovering it at the same time as you are – not that he’s about to leap out screaming GOTCHA.
I don’t want to give too much of the plot away: I can’t do it justice. But you’ll track diseases to Florida’s Everglades; you’ll learn about AI and robotics and contagious diseases; you’ll see what it really means to be human. If you’re anything like me, you’ll track the walkers’ progress on Google Maps, silently screeching at the distance and dangers.
No part of me is surprised that the TV rights have already been bought (by the producers behind Get Out and BlacKkKlansman).
The best cast of characters
Wanderers is told through the stories of several different characters. There’s Shana, older sister of Nessie the first sleepwalker. Dr Benji, the disgraced CDC expert. Pete, the Irish rockstar. Matthew, the conservative preacher. Marcy, the broken ex-copper. Black Swan, the omnipotent, omnipresent AI. Supporting them is a host of other characters, each as delightfully real and flawed as the main cast.
I’ve read a lot of books with multiple POVs, and usually there are ones I’m happy to skip or rush through. However, that wasn’t the case with Wanderers. Yes, Shana’s story was my favourite, but each perspective offered a new clue, a new twist or a new situation to explore. Because of how readable Wanderers is, it’s easy to race through – so even if you’re not feeling a section, you can quickly power through.
Despite the large number of characters, each voice is distinct. Wendig’s writing alters ever so slightly as he slips to another characters’ perspective. The dialogue is flawless, as is the characterisation. And Wendig is scathing when it comes to social commentary. There’s a Trump-like president: the racist ex-TV show star, Ed Creel. There’s Ozark Stover, the white supremacist. There’s people who fuel the fire of sexism, racism and fear until it combusts. And it feels terrifyingly real.
Part of what creates this reality is the media and style that Wendig uses. Every chapter has its own prelude: a snippet from Reddit, tumblr, podcasts or Twitter – a technique that makes this novel hard to stop thinking about.
It’s refreshing to have such a diverse range of characters too. The two leads, 18-year-old Shana and African-American Benji aren’t the normal white-guy-saves-the-world that so many sci-fi/dystopian stories centre around. Within the main plot, there are many spin-off plots that focus on social issues: from checking privilege to coming out.
One of my favourite things about Wanderers was the lack of damsel-in-distresses. There are women with agency: it’s women who drive the biggest parts of the plot. These were well-rounded women who weren’t there to act as the object of affection. They were flawed, they grew, they instantly found a place in my heart. And on top of that, nearly every single character, whether main or supporting, had a complete arc too.
It’s not just the characters that Wendig has made so lifelike. It’s the world too. Set in present-day America, Wanderers depicts a country that doesn’t seem implausible. What we have now are sparklers; what Wendig shows is capable of happening is fireworks. Uncontrolled AI development; uncontrolled climate catastrophe; uncontrolled gun ownership; uncontrolled preaching: Wendig takes no prisoners as he lists the ingredients to Wanderers’ shitstorm.
Read this if you like dystopian fiction: it’s a great example of the genre.
But also read this if you’re worried about climate change, AI, white supremacists and Trump, and the future. Read this if you want to immerse yourself in a story so completely, that you’ll start wondering when Boris Johnson plans on announcing updates on the walkers.
And – spoiler, but not massively – if you think I’m annoyed that on page 780 there’s a huge shocking great twist to end the book on, then you’re very wrong. The only way to end a book that spans so much, is to clearly, not have an ending.