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Within the trembling normalcy of our day to day lies the seeds of humankind’s destruction, and they’ve already sprouted. WANDERERS is a lengthy epic that spans sci-fi, pandemic and thriller to deliver a heady apocalypse story crafted all too pitch perfectly for our present moment.

One morning, 17-year-old Shana discovers her younger sister walking outside. Her eyes are open and her legs are moving, but she’s entirely unresponsive. It’s like she’s sleepwalking. Nessie is just the first. As the weeks go by, America fills slowly but steadily with what becomes a herd of walkers. They don’t eat or sleep, but walk purposefully across the country towards an unknown destination. If one tries to stop them, they explode --- violently. As the flock grows, they are accompanied by so-called “shepherds.” Shana is the first, her and her father rolling slowly alongside Nessie and the flock in an RV, but more follow, staying helplessly with their loved ones in the wake of something strange and unknowable.

"Dark and sprawling as it is, this is a clever, unapologetic story. It holds up a mirror to this country. The reflection is cracked, on the brink of shattering, and true."

Across the country, hell breaks loose. More specifically, the hell that already had broken loose uses the walkers to fan their fire. As the president, a woman, flounders in the face of the bizarre crisis, existing white supremacist organizations grow even stronger, blaming her and marginalized communities for the walkers. Meanwhile, the CDC is dealing with another peculiar impending disaster: there is a new disease, with a long rate of incubation, that has begun to spread. It affects body and mind alike, and it is fatal. A cast of characters, including a disgraced CDC scientist, an AI, a disillusioned preacher and an aging, closeted rock star, need to figure out how these crises intersect --- and if they can stop them before the entire world is either mindlessly wandering or dead.

The central gem of this novel is its eerie prescience. The vitriol against the female president. The terrifying, explicitly white supremacist fan base of her conservative opponent. Militarized fear of the other, of change. The devastating potential of the technology on which we center our lives. A disease borne out of humankind’s own folly. Our helplessness as a species in the face of true danger, a danger we don’t know how to begin to understand --- a danger that is due to either our own carelessness or hubris. It’s almost sickeningly plausible, often uncannily familiar and truly terrifying.

The other strength lies in how author Chuck Wendig can build a story. It’s terrifically well-paced for a novel of its size. I was engaged throughout almost all of the 800 pages and invested in most of the vivid characters. Wendig builds in twist after twist, each one well-planted yet surprising, expanding the world of the story outward. He grapples with faith and self, bias and identity, tech, morality and hope.

A warning that WANDERERS does include graphic violence and a depiction of sexual assault. The violence is almost all purposeful and suits the tone. It is the apocalypse, after all. However, I felt that the assault and its circumstances, while gruesomely plausible, was gratuitous. It was pointed, and the survivor's narrative as a whole is a strong one, but the scene was brutal and disturbing for me to read. I also wished that with such a varied cast and tone, there had been more queer characters.

Still, it’s Chuck Wendig, so there’s humor here, amidst the frightening prescience and apocalypse of it all, along with joy and love. Who will you choose to spend your days with in the face of extreme danger? What will you do with the time given to you? Who will you become? Dark and sprawling as it is, this is a clever, unapologetic story. It holds up a mirror to this country. The reflection is cracked, on the brink of shattering, and true.

Reviewed by Maya Gittelman on July 12, 2019

by Chuck Wendig