One morning, a teenage girl named Nessie leaves her house and walks. She doesn’t know where she’s going. She doesn’t know anything. Nessie is the first walker, but others soon join her. As Nessie’s sister Shana and their father tag along to protect their walker, a community of people calling themselves shepherds form around them. They watch over the flock of walkers and protect them from those who would do them harm. Over time other, stragglers attach themselves to the ever-growing group of pilgrims. A washed up rock star uses the herd to get attention and stroke his ego and an ex-cop with severe head trauma finds relief from her chronic pain. CDC scientists Arav and Cassie follow the herd as they desperately seek a cure.
Looming over everything is Black Swan, an artificial intelligence device used to detect and predict outbreaks of disease. It brings in Sadie, its handler, and Benji, a doctor who wants to rehab his reputation after being fired from the CDC years before. Eventually the shepherd and flock conflict with white supremacists and far-right fascists using the coming apocalypse for their own nefarious purposes. A parallel epidemic of a colonizing fungus arises, but are the walkers and the fungal infection a coincidence or is something more sinister going on?
That’s the premise, but the meat of the story is the journey across America. Political instability and virulent bigotry exacerbate the sleepwalker problem, and unmitigated fear cause seemingly decent people to act in unpredictable and explosive ways. This is a story about the end of the world but it’s really about us, about the things we do to each other when we think we can get away with it and what we do to the world when we think we have no other choice.
Although the title seems like it could apply to the sleepwalkers, I’d argue it better describes the shepherds. The sleepwalkers have a destination even if they aren’t aware of it and no human can predict it. They walk with purpose and determination; nothing can interrupt, slow, or stop their perpetual movement forward without bloody consequences. The shepherds, however, have no such focus. They care only about protecting the walkers from any and all potential threats. For some it’s familial love that binds them to their walker. For others it’s a sense of duty or responsibility. For a few there is simply nothing else to do but follow. They have no destination except at their walker’s side. They wander the land hoping for a cure but prepared for disappointment.
But the wandering is bigger than physical movement. It’s a wandering of the soul, of the mind, of the heart. Underneath the techno thriller and dystopian elements, Wanderers is really about good and evil. More specifically, it’s about how most people aren’t really one or the other but both. Sometimes they tip more to one side of the spectrum, but changing circumstances and new choices can push them into a different direction. There are people who think they’re good but do awful things and people who think they’re bad but are sometimes caring and kind. Wendig asks us whether that distinction even matters in the end. Should we look at the net value of a person’s deeds or is how they behave at the worst moment of their lives what really counts?
Benji thinks of himself as a good man, but he lies, cheats, and steals to get his way. Sure, his intentions are good, but the impact is devastating for anyone caught in the aftermath. He spends much of the book convinced that if a lot of pain now means less pain in the future then it’s worth it…until he comes face to face with that future. Then he must ask himself if a future born of blood and suffering is better than no future at all. Benji might agree, Shana might not, and Black Swan might not deign to respond. Each character would have a different reaction to that, and they’d all be valid even when they contradict each other. Again, there are no right or wrong answers here; it’s the questions that matter.
Pete the rock star and Matthew the pastor are the embodiment of this question of morality. Pete’s job is to crisscross the world, never settling and always moving. If he is a metaphorical walker, his fans are his shepherds, following him around the world and lavishing him with attention. They protect his legacy and reputation and he lets them. Until the world began to collapse, he sleepwalked through life not caring about who he left behind or the emotional wreckage he towed in his wake. He is both good and bad. He tries to do what’s right, but it takes him far too long to get to that point. Even his attempts to help cause pain to others, some who deserve it and others who don’t.
On the other side of Pete’s moral coin is Matthew. Like Pete he is also a sleepwalker through life who left a trail of emotional and literal corpses behind him. Pete unintentionally used his power for good while Matthew for evil. Because of this, his moral debt is much higher than Pete’s and much harder to rebalance. At what point does an apology become worthless and making amends an impossible task? Should he even bother? Does forgiveness even matter in the face of the apocalypse? Matthew must figure them out on his own. Unless he dies before he gets the chance.
This sort of nuanced character work is standard in anything Wendig writes. Like the characters or hate them, but regardless they’re always well crafted and fully realized. However they behave—curse like a sailor, risk everything, make poor choices, lash out violently, care deeply, or whatever else—it’s because they have a lifetime of experiences that brought them to this moment. His readers never have to worry about a character doing something because the plot needs to get them from point A to point B. They act or react the way they do because it’s genuine to their personality and beliefs, not because they’re blatant and forceful plot devices.
In the great Chuck Wendig tradition, Wanderers doesn’t just settle for a plot twist or two. He plot twists the plot twist then plot twists the plot twist’s plot twist. Reading his books is like standing super close to a painting and seeing only the smudges of paint then taking a step back to see those brushstrokes form a flower. Step back again and now you see the flower is in a vase. Another step back and the vase is in a room. One more step and the room is in a house and the house is on fucking fire and there’s blood everywhere and people are running and screaming. Wendig is a master at turning the screw and twisting the knife past what most authors would dare but not so much that he jumps the shark (metaphors!). It takes serious skill to ramp up tension without letting it overwhelm the story, yet Wendig makes it look easy.
I only have two real critiques of what is overall a fantastic novel, and both come down to language. Now, I understand that some characters need to use derogatory and offensive terminology; a bigot is a bigot is a bigot and Wendig always gives them their due. But there were several instances that the third person narration and the non-bigots fell back on terms and tropes that felt to me like microaggressions, particularly with regard to weight and race. I absolutely don’t believe Wendig was intentionally using unpleasant stereotypes, but as noted earlier, intent and impact don’t always line up.
Furthermore, Wanderers is the perfect example of why we need content warnings to become standard. Because the book lacks them (or at least the review copy did), I’ll list them here: racism, homo/transphobia, sexism, blood and gore, and physical, verbal, and sexual assault. I’m absolutely not telling you not to read the book because of this content, nor am I suggesting the scenes with this content were for shock value—the opposite, in fact. I’m just telling you to be ready. I wish I had time to prepare for certain parts of this novel.
If, after all my lavish and effusive praise, you still aren’t convinced if you should read Wanderers, let me leave you with this: the book is 800 pages and I read it in two sittings. I forgot to eat. Twice. I sat on the couch enraptured by the story. It’s that good. No, it’s that incredible.
Wanderers is available now from Del Rey.
Alex Brown is a high school librarian by day, local historian by night, author and writer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her on Twitter and Insta, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.