Wanderers by Chuck Wendig

A review

Chuck Wendig has long been on my radar ever since I stumbled across his Terribleminds blogsite. This is an entertaining repository of off-the-wall writing commentary, forums, insights and general observations on life. So, I was already familiar with his witty and engaging style. I’ve downloaded a host of his writing advice books (well worth a read if you’re a writer btw,) read ‘Zeroes’ and, most recently, listened to the first of his Miriam Black series – Blackbirds on audio.

In his newsletter he’d flagged up that he was working on a monster book and gradually built up the expectation of its release over a long period of time.

When I finally received it in hard back form it certainly lived up to its reputation as a weighty tome. 780 pages long. So, had Wendig strayed into the realms of bloated pretensions of epic post-apocalyptic fiction? Well, I clearly had high hopes.

A book this size is likely to contain a lot of threads and in this respect I was’t disappointed: a growing mass of zombie-like wanderers, a backdrop of environmental catastrophe, a pandemic disease called White Mask, right wing extremism taking over politics, and a sinister/ambivalent AI entity. These are all woven – or should I say tangled – together during the first half of the book.

The danger with this level of complexity is that the reader needs to invest in the characters and vibe of the story early to sustain them through an unfamiliarity with the characters and world created. Fortunately, Wendig doesn’t disappoint in this respect. Each character is uniquely crafted with their own individual quirks to make them memorable and make you want to understand them better.

Take Shana, or example. Her sister is the first of the wanderers. You identify straight away with the protectiveness she feels toward her sister (Nessie,) the alienation from her father and the bitterness she exudes regarding her mother walking out on the family when they were young. It would be very easy for the author to default to trope and present her as a typical resentful, rebellious teenager, but Shana has an atypical maturity that endears the reader through a series of interactions and encounters. Couple this with a passion for photography (something that Wendig himself is fanatical about) and you have a main protagonist you want to root for.

Benji, the other main character is a doctor, sacked from the CDC – an organisation that deals with disease outbreaks and threats to public health on a large scale. He’s a refreshing change from your typical Child/Clancy/Ludlum super resilient alpha male. His skills do not revolve around dealing death, but he is a thinker, empathic and fiercely determined. In true Stephen King style he navigates through some extreme situations in a stumbling David vs Goliath manner. Speaking of King, it is certainly apt to make comparisons with ‘The Stand’ and Robert McCammmon’s ‘Swan Song.’

In addition to these two, there are some other major players: Pete Corley, a rock star past his prime harbouring secrets about his sexuality and looking for one final firework burst before his career ends up in the sand. There’s Matthew, a preacher – a man with a good heart but misguided. His drug-addicted wife and rebellious son no longer connect with him, but he has his faith and his mission instead. Unlike King, who often takes religious types and swings them off into unhinged psycho territory, Matthew feels great unease as he is drawn into the election campaign of an ultra-right presidential campaign headed by a man called Creel. Unease turns to great misgiving as he comes to realise one of Creel’s greatest supporters, Ozark Stover, is preparing for a revolution using his growing militia and arsenal. The wanderers become the focus of this reactionary hatred and Matthew the preacher is conscripted to vocalise the vitriol wrapped up in religious language.

The other character I enjoyed was Marcy, an ex-police officer, forced to retire early due to a severe head injury sustained during a vicious assault during the line of duty. This injury curiously allows her to detect the Wanderers as angels from afar and hear what their thought-chatter is saying. She’s the sort of character you expect to be disposed of quickly but, let’s say, she keeps bouncing back. One of Wendig’s pluckiest creations.

The mystery of the plot continues. We can’t decide whether Black Swan, the AI entity that has predicted the advent of the Wanderers and the outbreak of the pandemic disease (White Mask), is altogether wholesome and having humanity’s best interests in mind. In addition, it isn’t revealed until much later why the Wanderers seem able to continue walking in their semi-comatose state without the need for food, sleep or other sustenance. Also: why do they literally explode in a shower of splintered bone and shredded flesh if they are forcibly diverted from their course?

Wendig continues the revelations and, just when you think you know where it’s going, he introduces another surprise.

It took me a long time to read Wanderers, but perseverance with the storyline paid off, especially when it came to the ending. This was masterfully crafted and, dare I say it, left the way open to a possible sequel?

Wendig’s story certainly pits you through the emotional wrangle. There’s hopes realised and destroyed, love whose life expectancy is placed on the clock from the word go, drama, grief, intrigue and white-knuckle thrills. Overall, Wendig has spun a unique insight into the human condition. Erin Morganield described Wanderers as a tour de force, and I couldn’t agree more.

Get yourself a copy now.

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