by Chuck Wendig
RH-Ballantine Books-Del Rey | pub date: 15-Nov-2022
AMBER LOVE 21-Nov-2022 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.
Five years ago, ordinary Americans fell under the grip of a strange new malady that caused them to sleepwalk across the country to a destination only they knew. They were followed on their quest by the shepherds: friends and family who gave up everything to protect them.
Their secret destination: Ouray, a small town in Colorado that would become one of the last outposts of civilization. Because the sleepwalking epidemic was only the first in a chain of events that led to the end of the world—and the birth of a new one.
The survivors, sleepwalkers and shepherds alike, have a dream of rebuilding human society. Among them are Benji, the scientist struggling through grief to lead the town; Marcy, the former police officer who wants only to look after the people she loves; and Shana, the teenage girl who became the first shepherd—and an unlikely hero whose courage will be needed again.
Because the people of Ouray are not the only survivors, and the world they are building is fragile. The forces of cruelty and brutality are amassing under the leadership of self-proclaimed president Ed Creel. And in the very heart of Ouray, the most powerful survivor of all is plotting its own vision for the new world: Black Swan, the A.I. who imagined the apocalypse.
Against these threats, Benji, Marcy, Shana, and the rest have only one hope: one another. Because the only way to survive the end of the world is together.
Read my detailed review of book one, WANDERERS, if you feel like you need to catch up. Like its predecessor, WAYWARD clocks in at 800 pages which may not be a lot for most readers, but when you’re trying to meet your yearly goal of books read and also get a review done by deadline, that’s a lot of pages. I’ll hand this to Wendig, in Wayward all those pages add something to the story. In fact, if you haven’t read book one, you might actually be all right jumping into Wayward. Usually that’s only possible with books that are planned to be a series; these weren’t—exactly. In the Acknowledgments, Wendig explains that if there was enough interest in a second book, he’d write one, but it wasn’t on his mind as Wanderers was created. While I’m mentioning the Acknowledgments, allow me to start at the end of the book. The Acknowledgments in Wayward include more than a list of people being thanked. It’s a personal letter from author to reader and I feel it’s important for people to read it.
The key characters in the mix this time are mostly the same: Shana Stewart, Benji Ray, Marcy Reyes, Matthew Bird, Pete Corley; and now that the Sleepwalking Flock is awake, Nessie (Shana’s sister and the first Sleepwalker). There are two enemies: Ed Creel, the man who has stolen the presidency by having all the previous people in line assassinated; and Black Swan, the AI program.
Five years have gone by in which the shepherds have been creating a new town that will be safe after the White Mask pandemic. They had to solve all the survival problems like finding food, heat, clean water. When the Flock awakens, they form a town council with the youngest among them, Nessie, included because of her intelligence. The AI Black Swan had chosen them to be the ones to survive the plague which killed 99% of all humans (it was also in animals, but the percentage of survival wasn’t at the forefront). Black Swan kept them alive and then it needed somewhere to go to preserve its own survival. The program was already godlike. The awaken Flock treated it as such and full faith in it, except for Shana who was not an original Sleepwalker.
Shana was the first shepherd who walked with her sister to keep her safe as they traveled around the United States landing in Ouray, Colorado, a remote mountain village. Since Black Swan hadn’t intended for Shana, an average person, to be a survivor, it was more about opportunity when the AI leapt into her. When it did, she was already pregnant.
Wayward pulls into mythologies of all corners of the globe. A young pregnant woman carrying the new god is the nucleus. Black Swan adapts and learns that humans aren’t going to automatically do what it wants because of predictions. Enemies develop slowly at first within the Ouray community.
As chapters change points of view for all the main characters, readers are brought to the apocalypse bunker of Ed Creel and those wealthy enough to buy a suite in order to wait out the White Mask plague. The thing is, there really isn’t a country left. There’s one Senator in the bunker. Creel and his Vice-President are down there. But all communication possibilities died. People who worked at broadcasting news agencies kept their channels open until they were taken by the fungus. As the world returned to nature, infrastructure crumbled under its growth. Creel gets out of his bunker and sets out to find the cult of white supremacists who are likely to be the only people alive to recognize his authority.
All hope is resting on Shana and scientist Benji Ray. They have a father-daughter relationship and when they reunite with motherfucking rock god Pete Corley, they hold on to each other with every ounce of love and strength they can muster. Acceptance of others and seeing their special talents is at the heart of what Wayward’s story tells us (besides that humans do suck and are violent, greedy, consumers of all resources). There are people who want to give and people who want to take. Even Black Swan wants to take under the guise of giving back to humanity. The program takes over Shana’s baby Charlie.
Marcy has important roles in Wayward as she did in book one. She’s not as visible as the main characters. She’s the conscience of the book. She’s the one to look at arguments or debates from all sides. She’s fallible and lovable.
Wayward gives readers all the payoffs they would want or maybe hoped for that didn’t happen in Wanderers. Not everyone makes it out alive and the deaths are even more intimate if that’s possible. In Wanderers, Benji had to watch his love Sadie die from White Mask; Shana saw her father and her love/baby daddy Arav die. Those deaths felt like things that had to happen to move main characters forward. In Wayward, the deaths close the proverbial chapter and give characters an ending. That’s not to imply Wanderers didn’t handle death well; it was different and on an epic scale as billions of people and animals died.
There is none in book two! Wendig introduces a new character in Wayward. A woman readers come to know as Annie. She has a fascinating story arc fit for a hero. Annie’s mother was responsible for unleashing the Nanocyte that gave Black Swan the ability to spread. She may not be a main character with a lot of pages dedicated to her, but she is vital to the success of the main trio: Shana, Benji, and Pete. Annie faces all the danger a woman fears, but Creel needs her in order to get what he wants. In this I’ll say: there’s no sexual assault, but Annie loses all her agency for a large chunk of time. I think that’s important to spell out considering how things went for Matthew Bird in Wanderers.
Does the Dog Die?
As I read Wayward, my heart was toyed with. My bar went from “survival is going to be hard as hell” to “there’s no hope at all” to “humans don’t deserve this planet.” I’m sure all of my physiological and emotional responses were exactly what the author wanted. I felt the stress, the panic, I cried; and yet I couldn’t stop reading it. When the Very Good Dog Gumball is introduced, I went to the website doesthedogdie.com and searched for Wayward. There are a bunch of movies and TV shows with the word in their titles. I struck out finding the book which I kind of expected considering that it just came out.
Gumball could’ve been written as “just” a dog (I know there’s no such thing IRL but as a character it could be an unimportant figure). He could have been a companion that ends up with different characters and freely roams around Ouray doing dog things like looking for nice people or warning of danger. Instead Wendig takes a bold, brilliant, made-me-cry approach and gives Gumball his own POV chapters. There are reasons the golden retriever is still the third most popular breed of dog in America.
These are spoilers I will give: Gumball survives; the wolves don’t fair so well; the fox ends up being alive; the opossum becomes an unexpected icon.
There is a lot of gun violence. I think if you’re used to seeing/reading it in other action stories about real life, it won’t be shocking. However, this brand of gun violence has a large span. It’s within the small village of Ouray with two people fighting; it’s between small parties against each other; it’s also the white supremacist army against what’s left of the real Army.
Sci-fi gadgets: the Nanocyte gives certain people the ability superhuman abilities as you would expect to see in things like The Matrix, Terminator 2, and Marvel or DC story, or Valiant’s Bloodshot which rather closely resembles the technology in Wanderers/Wayward because it’s based on where real science has been tinkering. That includes being able to chop heads in half with liquid metal razors or buzzsaws coming out of someone’s hands.
Rating: 5 stars
Map Your Books:
If anyone would like to go through Wanderers and add all the towns mentioned to the Squirl map, it could be a fun addition to the Wanderers universe. I’ve added Wayward and the two key locations: Ouray and Atlanta; but there are definitely other towns that could be added.