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.From Goodreads
TLDR; Timely, relevant, disturbing. An absorbing post-apocalyptic sci-fi with a unique spread of characters, contemplating what a societal breakdown could look like in the future.
Chuck Wendig’s Wanders is an especially relevant and disturbing read given the state of politics and COVID-19 at this time. For those brave enough to pick up it up, you’ll find an absorbing post-apocalyptic epidemic-based science fiction tome that’s gripping through the end. Starting with two sisters who begin as the first shepherd-walker pair at the center of an unknown phenomenon, the story then branches to introduce other interesting characters including epidemiologist of sorts, a pastor (or priest?), and a rock star. And just to spice it up there’s a dash of AI named Black Swan to keep it interesting and double down on modernity.
I don’t read much sci-fi but this book was really great! Between the AI and pandemic aspects there was enough room for a really dynamic plot and unexpected twists. Each character also introduces their own struggles and viewpoints, which make sense in context of the world they interact within but also resonate with themes of today. Some examples of topics are love and loyalty, LGBTQ+, depression/mental health, rape, substance abuse, gun violence, race-based interactions (e.g. references to white supremacy).. I might be missing a few. The list is long but appropriately so. It would be unrealistic to portray an apocalyptic world without covering a realistic range of burdens people would undertake.
Politics is another topic I should mention that had unexpected relevance. The book takes place in an unstable political environment wherein a candidate running for presidency and his supporters exhibit clear similarities to the alt-right groups of today. Political discussions are all extremely polarized and inclined towards violence. I didn’t expect the topic to be such a big part of the story, so that’s something that will sneak up on you as you’re reading and warrants a brief mention here.
If I have to pick favorite bits of the story without giving too much away, I’d have to say there were two characters that really stuck with me – and neither was the first shepherd, Shana, surprisingly! One was infectious disease specialist. What drew me to him was his unrelenting pursuit of answers and expertise, but also his imperfections. He’s made mistakes in the past and sometimes needs reminders to practice humility and make space for his colleagues, which I thought was fantastic to include. The other character I enjoyed was the pastor, also because of his humanity. Religious leaders are often viewed as divinely-inspired figures who implicitly know right from wrong. This book allowed him to have flaws and used them to examine how the words and energy we put into the world have impact, even if we believe they may not.
In sum, this was a much more complex book than I expected an end-of-world sci-fi to be (with number of pages to match)! I’ve seen a few people saying this book shouldn’t be classified as a sci-fi since I guess there wasn’t enough hard-core science to justify, but as someone not as immersed in the genre it felt just right to me, and I think tech and medical science certainly count! Perhaps it helps that I’m in the tech industry and the AI pandered to my interests a bit 😉. Other readers have drawn parallels between this book and The Stand which unfortunately I can’t comment on since I haven’t read it, but if anyone has read both please feel free to share your thoughts!
I definitely enjoyed this story and would highly recommend giving it a go if it wouldn’t increase your anxiety to read about a pandemic during a real one 🦠. On the other hand, if everyone is starting to work from home and shelter in place like in Seattle and elsewhere, this is a fantastic long book to pass the time!
Stay safe and read on, everyone!