Book review: Wanderers by Chuck Wendig
AMBER LOVE 31-MAY-2019 This review is a courtesy provided by NetGalley. To support this site and my other work, please consider being a monthly donor at Patreon.com/amberunmasked; you can also buy my books through Amazon (or ask your local retailer to order you copies). I’m also an Amazon Influencer so you can shop through my lists of recommended products.
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 as the sleepwalking phenomenon awakens terror and violence in America, the real danger may not be the epidemic but the fear of it. With society collapsing all around them — and an ultraviolent militia threatening 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.
I’m grateful for NetGalley allowing me to preview WANDERERS by Chuck Wendig. I know one isn’t supposed to judge a book by its cover, but I will be honest. As soon as I saw the cover, I wanted to know more. I wish I could note the artist or designer, but it’s not given on NetGalley or the Amazon listing.
I’m so far behind on my Wendig reading, because I’ve honestly been trying to keep my TBR list to women and marginalized voices. I make a couple of exceptions during each year. I’m so overwhelmed that WANDERERS landed in my lap. It is 800 pages which I did not realize when I started. I wondered why my Kindle percent gauge wasn’t going up after several hours of reading. That’s fantastic news for those of you who love to be so immersed in a robust world that you’ll get to know everything about it.
WANDERERS could be considered five books in one.
The characters are remarkable and memorable. It’s a diverse cast set in a world that succumbs to a plague known as White Mask, which then leads to a political coup by white supremacists. There’s no allegory here. We’re living this shit now and you’re fool if you haven’t noticed.
The five distinct stories are: Shana Stewart (includes her sister Nessie, her father Charlie, and her mother Daria); Doctor Benji Ray (with all of the associates from the CDC and private companies on the science end like Arav, Cassie, and Sadie); Marcy Reyes (she’s all on her own though she becomes welcomed to the group); Pete Corley (infamous punk rocker past his due date with his lover Landry and band mates); and finally Pastor Matthew Bird (tied to his wife Autumn, son Bo, and then the right-wing militia and zealots).
Nessie Stewart: She said to Shana one day, I heard that if you complain it reprograms your brain like a computer virus and it just makes you more and more unhappy, so I’m going to stay positive because I bet the opposite is true, too.”
(I had to include that quote because, like a lot of Wanderers, there is science which backs some of it up. While I — a severe depression sufferer — don’t believe you can choose happiness but you can choose not to complain; there definitely is proof of neuroplasticity — the ability for the brain to find the paths most taken like an interstate rather than a dirt road.)
The ball immediately gets rolling as Nessie walks out of her house, unresponsive and apparently sleepwalking. We learn it’s not really sleepwalking, but even the characters use the term throughout by choice. Shana realizes she can’t redirect Nessie back home and stays with her to make sure she’s safe. As their walk progresses and gets weirder, more and more sleepwalkers show up until there’s a flock of 1,024 people plus their “shepherds” the loved ones who stick by protecting them.
As something this wild goes on, there’s speculation from all kinds of sides: are they dead/zombies? are they terrorist bioweapons being controlled by enemies? are they sick? are they Satan’s pilgrims? are they angels?
All valid questions for the most part and it takes a long time to get the full answer.
I love the ethnic diversity of the main speaking characters. What becomes part of the global mystery is why the flock of sleepwalkers itself is so diverse. They fall into some criteria: must be above average intelligence and in health; their ethnic breakdown seems to reflect the demographics of the United States.
Of the characters, even though I found Shana Stewart a believable and lifelike 18-year-old and Benji Ray, a complicated scientist who has spent his life saving the world a number of times, it’s this other character Marcy Reyes that I truly fell for. Marcy is an ex-cop who becomes disabled after a brutal beating by a perp. Her life sucks when we meet her. Then the growing flock of sleepwalkers head down her street and it changes Marcy’s life. Following her along with the walkers, the good guys, and the bad guys is a definitely a B-story that I wanted to keep reading.
** Here’s where I get sensitive and put up Trigger Warnings **
Pastor Matthew Bird vs. Ozark Stover:
I’ve taken many deep breaths to clear my thoughts and figure out exactly what I want to express about this part of the book. Though both characters here, Matthew and Ozark, are essential to the grander scope, I believe a huge bulk of their arc could have been managed through short summaries. Each chapter already begins with a variety of blurbs from quotes by podcasters, news reports, and tumblr entries.
Select text to reveal.
I genuinely think the horrific graphic nature of the male/male rape and all the white supremacy could have been of the same value if handled differently.
Readers know what today’s Nazis are like. They know about militias like those assholes who laid siege at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Burns, Oregon and declared it their territory free from the US law.
The play by play details of Ozark’s group — which later merges with a bunch of other militia Nazis and becomes known as ARM — wasn’t that necessary. Readers are smart. They can be told periodic updates about how many tanks and guns and RPGs some asshole has on his ranch. I’m not sure they need to smell the gun oil and powder after a target practice party (among other much worse things).
I even made a digital note in chapter 66 that I was sick of the pastor’s story and don’t care about him or damn family at all anymore. Pastor Matthew does seek redemption which is a fine for his character development, but I was so over him. I just didn’t care.
** Different Content Note **
Mental Health Issues:
Personally, I think Wendig did a great job handling the mental illnesses of both Autumn Bird and Daria Stewart who suffered from depression and suicidal thoughts.
Daria also had addiction problems and inconsistent drug therapies that made her whole situation unique. Autumn, meanwhile, was married to the pastor who felt she could pray away the pain if she just gave more of herself to the Lord. Autumn’s recovery is bit more unbelievable, but not impossible. When the whole world is ending and everyone is suffering — there’s nothing clinical about Autumn’s depression anymore. People are ending their lives as the plague drives them to insanity or through mistakes like Alzheimer’s patients (example, a pilot forgetting he’s flying a plane and just exits).
I wanted to mention their plights here because it does come up and it could be triggering. Daria goes about her day in a supermarket and gets whammed with those feelings of depression, suicide, and paranoia. She ends up hiding behind a machine and hoping no one sees her crouched down there. It was visceral.
My only criticism here is that both characters were women and suffering from the same symptoms. As far as I could tell, both straight white women too. With such a great cast of characters and a story line where people are taking their lives because the White Mask plague is unbearable, I think two depressed white women felt like a missed opportunity in some way. I could be wrong about Daria’s ethnicity because I don’t think it’s ever specified. With Pastor Bird’s family getting under the thumb of the white supremacists, I assume Autumn was white or she would not have been a welcomed guest at Ozark’s estate.
The Wanderers World
I referred to the environment as robust and I wasn’t exaggerating. The sleepwalkers travel around the entire country with their shepherds (and news crews). Even with an uncorrected proof, I have a ton of passages highlighted because I appreciate the artistic descriptions of what it was like walking into small towns where the people held signs of hate speech, the feeling of going a month without a shower, or the orgasmic satisfaction of having the first cup of coffee in nearly a year.
“This man was an enemy of the angels — that’s what they were, Marcy realized that now in an epiphany that felt to her mind like the warm tickling waters of a bubble bath, they were angels –“
I’ve made it this far and haven’t actually mentioned the antagonist. Black Swan. It’s the machine intelligence which, as all scifi computer-centric fiction warns us, is too damn dangerous to exist. Shana doesn’t trust Black Swan from the beginning. Benji is leery, but then he’s the one who grows to have a relationship with it. There’s even a period where Black Swan won’t speak to Sadie, its lead programmer, but it will only speak to Benji.
Before the White Mask illness is even discovered, Black Swan had events in motion with human beings. Meanwhile, there’s also an oh-so-familiar presidential race going on with the female incumbent President Hunt — who is naturally called Hunt the Cunt by her opponents because they’re not particularly smart nor creative — versus right-wing, faux Christian, war monger, white supremacist Ed Creel. Creel uses people like Pastor Matthew Bird to spread the fake news and conspiracy theories that the flock of sleepwalkers are an imminent danger to the country.
Wendig holds no bars when it comes to making a novel that is based completely on ethical principles and politics. There are so many bits of factual trivia in Wanderers. The whole plague, White Mask, is based on the unfortunately real white nose fungus which obliterated the little brown population of the country and kills millions of them. The presidential race could give you flashbacks to 2016 and if you stayed up all night on that fateful day like I did then spent a week crying, the politics in Wanderers will feel familiar.
Weeks before that, he threw at her a series of eyeless baby dolls, painted red. Symbolizing her defense of women’s rights — meaning, Planned Parenthood, meaning, abortion. (Even though abortion counted for less than 3 percent of Planned Parenthood’s function, Creel said it was “more like 95 percent of what they did, killing good American babies.”)
Also the mentions of people buying fish antibiotics from pet stores because they didn’t have health insurance to see doctors or pay for prescriptions is something I’ve seen people admit to on Twitter. Point being, there are a lot of real fucked up things in Wanderers that should cause people to reflect on our own current state of right fucking now.
And without needing to quote, I’ll tell you climate change comes up regarding the White Mask plague. Like all the other catalysts, it’s a controversy between the characters whether that was genuinely the source of it. And boy-howdy, wait until you find out!
You’ll find some fun pop culture references to musicians like Babymetal and Bowie; but also movies like The Matrix, Stephen King’s The Stand and more.
Previous Podcast with Chuck Wendig! Holy crap from all the way back in 2012!