Review: Wanderers by Chuck Wendig

I listened to Wanderers on audio, and now I want to talk about it. The first part of this review will be light and spoiler free. During the second half, I’m going to go deep into some of the details. I’ll make it clear when I’m about to get into spoilers, so if you haven’t read this story yet, abandon this post at that point.

I’ll start with the TL;DR — Wanderers is great, and you should absolutely read it.

Chuck is a great writer, and if you’re familiar with his voice, it comes through strong and clear in this book. His descriptions are stellar. While other people might praise the strong characterizations and the intricate plot, I want to impress upon you that Chuck’s mastery of the craft is on full display in Wanderers.

I enjoyed the book so much that I bought the hard cover to give to Melissa to read. I bought the book twice. It’s that good.

From this point forward, I’m going to go into greater and greater details of the book. If you want to go into this story as blind as possible, this is where you should close this tab. If, on the other hand, you’ve read the story and you want to talk about it as much as I do, read on! Let’s have a discussion.

SPOILERS BEYOND THIS POINT

Are you still here? If you haven’t read the book yet, get out of here.

Okay. Let’s get into the meat.

Some of what I’m about to say is going to sound a little bit negative. The book is really good, though. Good enough for me to buy it twice and open this review with glowing praise. It’s not perfect, however, and while sometimes the beauty can be found in the flaws, other times, the problems are the gristle that gets stuck in your teeth, lingering with you long after the meal is done.

The story begins on a farm, following a teenage girl named Shana that has just a little bit too much on her plate even before the story fully begins. Chuck’s storytelling really shines here, succinctly giving us Shana’s world and her family dynamic in a way that doesn’t feel expository. We get her voice, her dilemmas, and a feel for the core of her character, which is what drives her to walk with the flock and become a shepherd.

Let’s talk about the sleepwalkers. From the beginning, they fascinated me. Their impenetrable skin and their ability move continuously without eating or sleeping stood out. Zombie imagery is offset by the quirks of their physiology, such as violently exploding when their progress impeded.

That brings me to one of the flaws. A good deal of time is spent making the reader aware of these extremely unusual qualities. They seem supernatural, but the book goes out of the way to present a world of science and reason. All the characters that are part of the CDC are presenting in a convincing fashion, with terminology and approaches that ring true. It felt to me that a promise was made in giving a rational explanation for everything that takes place in the story, but I found the explanation for the sleepwalkers to be unsatisfying.

Nanobots do not explain how the sleepwalkers are able to continue walking for months and months without sleep or calories. Nanobots aren’t capable of keeping eyeballs from drying out. They can’t make skin impenetrable to needles. It’s a point that most readers aren’t going to stumble over, but after doing such a great job of presenting a rational, scientifically sound premise, this part of the story fell a little flat to me.

The world’s authentic reaction to the walkers was pitch perfect. Chuck depicted the slow, painful collapse of society in a very believable fashion.

The fully realized characters leaped off the page with strong voices, believable motivations, and distinct personalities. I cared about them. I didn’t always like them, but that’s part of what made them so real.

I need to talk about a scene that really bothered me. If I were going to give this book a rating between 1 and 10, I’d give it an 8. If not for this one part, I’d easily give it a 9 or 10. But this scene…

To properly frame it, I need to talk about two characters: Benji and Matthew. I related to both characters as men of science and faith. The science aspect played out more strongly with Benji, and the faith more with Matthew, but they individually embodied both. I projected myself into both characters and enjoyed the ride through their eyes.

In terms of conviction and force of personality, Matthew was the weaker of the two. I kept wanting him to steel himself and rise above the temptations placed at his feet. I looked forward to him doing right by his faith and his family.

I did not expect him to get raped by Ozark Stover.

This is the one thing that kept me from fully enjoying the book. Whatever flaws I mentioned regarding the nanobots, I could look past. But the rape? It bothered me. I couldn’t see a reason for it, other than shock value. It happened without warning.

If Chuck hadn’t done such a good job with the rest of the story up to that point, I would have stopped without finishing. I did stop listening for a couple of days. Then I returned and pushed forward. After that, I needed Chuck to deliver a narrative that justified that kind of unexpected and brutal content. I needed Chuck to stick the landing.

Did he? Well…

If you follow Chuck on Twitter, you might be familiar with his Heirloom Apple reviews. I certainly love them. The rape scene for me was like biting into a crisp, delicious apple, juice running down my chin, then looking down to find half a worm nestled in the fruit’s white flesh. Does it matter how delicious the apple is after that bite?

But… it was good. The ending was good. To me, not great. Probably shocking to some readers, but after the rape scene, my senses were dulled and I wound up fixating on little things that didn’t make a lot of sense if scrutinized too closely.

I think Wanderers is great. I recommend people read it. It’s a magnificent piece comparable to The Stand. My own feelings about the use of a rape scene for shock value aside, it is the product of a masterful writer working at the top of his game.

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