Around page 534 of Wanderers, I made a rare status update while updating my Goodreads books. Holy Crap this book, I wrote making me begin another novel, something fun to overlap it and be the next read. I continued reading the book, and when I turned the last page, I felt something rarely felt after the book closes-emotionally spent.
Wanderers tells an intricate story of humanity coming to an end. From a core cast of characters beginning with Shana Stewart, an aimless 18-year-old. We see the sleepwalking outbreak unfold. Nessie, her younger sister, gets up and begins sleepwalking, soon joined by a teacher in town, the seeds of the ‘flock’ beginning. Needles can’t penetrate their skin, no need to urinate or defecate; they walk towards some mysterious endpoint. Anyone attempting to restrain them, well, you have to read it to see the consequences of doing it. At the same time, we meet a Baptist minister, a CDC investigator, an AI neural designer and the unit itself known as Black Swan, among many with their voice, motivations, and arcs. While the ‘flock’ gains more numbers, Wendig crafts a story of love, fear, and hatred.
I heard about Chuck Wendig during a NaNoWriMo write-in, especially, his Terrible Minds website and his books on writing. He writes candidly about the process with humour and a healthy dose of F-bombs. On Twitter, he’s not afraid to tackle the writing myths along with the increasing polarization in the US, one infecting even comic books. Wendig was let go from Marvel, with issues of his Darth Vader comic left to write, due to his ‘vulgarity and negativity’ on Twitter. (Really? I saw Leslie Jones swarmed in real-time by that former Breitbart idiot. Someone needs to stroll around Twitter more to see what it looks like.) While people will go after his with one-star reviews the way they tried with his Star Wars Aftermath series for what they deem as ‘SJW content,’ people were reading the book and judging its merit, not just the critics, have hailed this book as epic and imaginative. I would add it’s epic and imaginative AF as kids these days would say.
The exhaustion felt at the end wasn’t about the writing. For almost 800 pages, I was taken on a journey with these characters, with no idea how things will tie together after going from one plot thread to another then another. We have ‘the flock’ (the name they call the sleepwalkers), the white supremacist militia, Black Swan (an AI), the CDC with its process of investigating the sleepwalking outbreak but many other threads I chose not to mention. Why? Because this book did a glorious, incredible thing, by taking my expectations of the story and turning it upside down, inside out, and adding another twist. It did all that without making me wince, making me pay attention to words chosen for characters, dialogue (Wendig has an excellent ear for dialogue), with layers readers peel away as they reach the end of the story.
It’s a dystopian novel with echoes of today, and it’s about love, sometimes its breakdown, between fathers and daughters, fathers and sons, husbands and wives. It’s about finding meaning and purpose even as chaos reigns, about the need to belong and how that need gets exploited. Wendig populates his novel with the most human of characters. Nobody fits the hero type, and the villains start as the most generous neighbours. Wendig shows how small actions produce a butterfly effect for others in the novel and making amends for mistakes proves hard work with no magical closure scene for a character. Why? Because that’s life and its the way he grounds those extraordinary events, in reality, gives Wanderers its series of gut punches as a whole.
It took me a little over a week to read Wanderers, finishing the story near midnight over a weekend. For regular readers of Chuck Wendig’s work, this represents a body of work building upon itself and, true to his honesty, he writes in his acknowledgements thanking one person for keeping an eye when he slips into his writing crutches, a testament to the self-awareness tweeted in written about over the years. He made an 800-page novel read like a breeze, and those sorts of books take hard, hard work over a lifetime.