I’ve rewritten this opening paragraph half a dozen times so far and I’m forced to confront one of the worst things a reviewer can face: There is nothing even remotely close to Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers for me to draw on for comparison or to reference as I describe the strengths and my favorite parts of this book. I’ve cycled through everything from my favorite stories to my favorite bits of metaphor and poetry from various sources to books that fall under the same “disease and rampant evil assholes bring about the end of civilization as we know it” umbrella but none of them works. I get about three sentences in and am forced to admit that, right now, in my experience as a reader, there’s nothing that can compare. Which isn’t to say that it is the best book ever written and this novel transcends literature to be the Perfect Story–that’s far too subjective of a claim for me to make. I’m just saying that any reference I make is going to wind up being such a pale shadow that all I can do is say they had a similar function or action. Like comparing a sunrise to an idea that slowly came to your attention. One is the actual dawn, to which nothing can truly compare, and the other is something that dawned on you simply because describing an idea as something that slowly rose before you is the easiest way to say that you thought something through in a way that gave rise to a new idea. This book was powerful on so many levels that I’m not sure I could really draw good comparisons without breaking it apart so much that there’s hardly anything left.
First off, I’m going to warn you that this might be a difficult read if you’re an anxious person or if the current geopolitical state of the world (and to a similar degree the political state of the US) is something that causes you a high degree of stress. I have a hard time disconnecting from the injustices I see in the world and the slow-motion train wreck that is the USA these days, so I had to limit my exposure to this book. I had to take in it bits and pieces because it was so on-point that it was like reliving all of my worst imaginings since Trump announced his presidency. The way the world shifts; the way what used to be small political movements unified; the way that evil rose to prominence on the back of safety, security, and distrust; the way the world reacted to something it didn’t understand… It was something out of my nightmares. While I definitely recommend you read it because it is an amazing, powerful book full of some of the best writing I’ve seen in my life, I recommend you do it in chunks and with a good self-care plan in place. You’ll get through about the first half of the book before some of the stuff that is a little too real will come up, so take your time and savor it. I definitely recommend not binging it unless you’re really good at disconnecting from how eerily accurate it is.
Like most books, this one would be nothing without it’s characters, so they get first mention. Chuck Wendig handles the variety of lead characters and their points of view with a level of grace and clarity that I find rare. There are enough POVs that it can be a little alarming at first if you have a hard time with names like I do, but the way they’re written makes it easy to tell where you are in the story–who you’re riding along with–that even if you can’t remember the names to save your life you’ll recognize the character. Even the descriptions of the world around them change from one character to another, really emphasizing that the information we’re getting is from the limited view of a character in the story. There are a view points in the story where we get more of a narrator’s viewpoint, but it mostly sticks to the view and knowledge of one character at a time. Which, as it turns out, is crucial to story.
The story itself focuses around the rise of a group of poeple that most in the story call “the flock,” a disease that strikes the entire world, and how the world responds to both of these events. The two main protagonists around whom the major story events take place are a young woman named Shana whose sister wanders away from home in a trance. Shana’s sister is slowly joined by a growing crowd, the titular wanderers, and Shana is joined by another group eventually called Shepherds who have taken it upon themselves to care for their flock, generally as a result of a family member wandering away without warning to join the flock. The other main protagonist, a disgraced scientist named Benji, is at first trying to figure out what is happening to the flock but then gets pulled away when a new and possibly worse disease begins to show up. Through Shana’s eyes, we get to see how the world reacts to the flock as it slowly moves through the US at a walking pace. Through Benji’s eyes, we get to see how the world analyzes and prepares for first the flock taking people at seemingly random and then the rise of a horrible plague that appears to already have spread around the world by the time the science and disease communities first start learning about it. Through other characters, we get to see how other parts of the world, mostly the US where most of the action takes place, react to something they don’t understand.
To that end, Chuck Wendig did a masterful job capturing how the world would react. From Twitter threads ranting about news clicks to Reddit comment threads diver ever deeper into a web of conspiracy, Wendig perfectly portrayed a world lost in confusion and fear as they react and try, in their own ways, to understand. Fear that, in Wendig’s world as well as our own, is stoked by facists and racists parading as religious prophets and citizens concerned with their individual rights. We see people who seem reasonable, intelligent, and well-intentioned slide toward the alt-right, descending by small steps, one concession at a time, toward hate and anger. We see a progressive world, with a female president in the US, immediately and abruptly change directions as traditional power structures fail to adapt to the changing landscape. We see a world that feels so much like our own walk toward the edge and eventually over it. It feels more real now than ever as the US, once so prepared for disease outbreaks and the ever-changing world, trips and fails to react to a new viral threat in 2020. It can be hard to maintain hope in the world Wendig creates and in the story he tells, but he weaves that in as well. The small kindnesses that people perform for each other, the way we reach out to support and help the people around us, how even in disaster humans can connect and build new communities. The idea that there is more to humanity than our hate and violence, that there is something beneath it all that will try to do good and will try to survive no matter the challenge. It is a small hope, made smaller in the story by how hard it is to find in the primary world, but it is the glimmering silver thread that weaves the story together and sees it through to the end.
So much happens in this book that it is difficult to break down for discussion without potentially revealing spoilers. The twists and turns of this book were so good that I want to avoid as many spoilers as I can, even if it makes this a somewhat clumsy and disorderly review. I don’t frequently get surprised by how a plot twists as it makes its way toward the end, but I was very caught of guard in some places. In others, I discovered I had been correct all along but I didn’t feel let down. I felt like I had to earn those guesses by picking up on all the foreshadowing and hinting Wendig did as he wove this masterful tale, which meant I enjoyed every single twist, even the ones I knew were coming. The final twist, finally revealed as the book wrapped up, left me with a feeling of dread (turns out one of my worst real-life nightmares was happening in the book) and giddy anticipation for what I hope will be a sequel. Even if there isn’t a sequel, I will be content as the only thread left dangling at the end is “what happens next?”
I recommend you read this excellent book, Wanderers by Chuck Wendig, even if it takes you a while to do so since you have to put it down every few chapters so you can do something else for a little while. The narrative, characters, and write were so strong they still carried me from start to finish even though I had to take breaks that sometimes lasted a few days each, and they will carry you along as well. It’s a long book but it will fly by as you read it as Wendig’s excellent writing will effortlessly pull you.
Come to think of it, this is a great book for taking along on flights, to the beach, or to conventions for the slow hours, so you can be more prepared to retroactively question your folly for taking yourself someplace full of potential plague-bearers in this day and age of spreading fear and disease.