Over the past two weeks, I read two gripping, enthralling, un-put-downable books that scared the pants off me. These two books are quite different, but each presents a vision of our world that’s utterly terrifying because it’s so utterly possible.
Title: Our War
Author: Craig DiLouie
Publication date: August 20, 2019
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Speculative fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher
A prescient and gripping novel of a second American civil war, and the children caught in the conflict, forced to fight.
When the president of the United States is impeached, but refuses to leave office, the country erupts into civil war.
10-year-old Hannah Miller, an orphan living in besieged Indianapolis, has joined a citizen’s militia. She had nowhere else to go. And after seeing the firsthand horrors of war, she’s determined to fight with the Free Women militia.
Hannah’s older brother, Alex, is a soldier too. But he’s loyal to the other side. After being separated from Hannah, he finds a home in a group calling themselves The Liberty Tree militia.
When a UNICEF worker and a reporter discover that both sides are using child soldiers, they set out to shine a light on something they thought could never happen in the United States. But it may be too late because even the most gentle children can find that they’re capable of horrific acts.
Where to even start describing this powerful and upsetting book? It feels all too real, as an increasingly factionalized and radicalized America is plunged into a brutal civil war. Sides are drawn — and armed. It’s deadly serious, and as is sadly the norm in armed conflicts, children are the ones who are caught in the middle, starving, orphaned, witnessing death and brutality that no child should have to see,
Hannah is one of several POV characters; others include a hard-charging journalist pursuing her next great story, an inexperienced but determined UNICEF representative, the militia leader who takes in Hannah’s bother Alex, and Alex himself. Each shares their unique viewpoint on the war and its impact, and through each, we see the futility of the armed conflict and the seeming hopelessness of any attempt to find a resolution.
The political situation in Our War is, honestly, not so far different from our own current situation. It’s scarily easy to imagine these events evolving from where we stand today.
As a reporter, Aubrey had always been shocked by the right wing’s war on facts. They regularly vilified anybody in fact-based professions, from scientists to doctors. They generated and consumed propaganda and called anything else fake. For them, reality wasn’t as interesting as a good simple narrative that had them righteously and perpetually enraged.
At first, I found it confusing to keep track of which side was which, but I think that’s part of the point. After all, your view of whether someone is a patriot or a rebel may depend very much on which side of the line you yourself are standing on.
The writing here is raw and shocking and immediate, and makes for a completely gripping read. Above all, the children caught in the middle are the ultimate victims here, and seeing the war through Hannah’s eyes is truly gut-wrenching.
Author: Chuck Wendig
Publisher: Del Rey Books
Publication date: July 9, 2019
Length: 800 pages
Genre: Speculative fiction
A decadent rock star. A deeply religious radio host. A disgraced scientist. And a teenage girl who may be the world’s last hope. In the tradition of The Stand and Station Eleven comes a gripping saga that weaves an epic tapestry of humanity into an astonishing tale of survival.
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 are 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.
This massive, 800 page book seemed like a huge reading undertaking… but once I started, I savored every word, paragraph, and chapter. Did it need to be this huge? Why, yes. Yes, it did.
Wanderers is truly epic in scope. What starts as a weird local event — a sleepwalking girl who can’t be woken or stopped — turns into something huge and eerie (and to some, horribly frightening) as Nessie is joined by more and more sleepwalkers in her journey across America. Escorted by family members and friends who look after them, the flock moves endlessly forward. Meanwhile, the CDC scrambles to find out why, and right-wing militiamen, politicians, and conservative rabblerousers see the flock as a harbinger of end-times, and use their existence as an excuse to ramp up their hateful, violent rhetoric, whipping their public into a frenzy.
Just what is causing the sleepwalking phenomenon is revealed over time, as is the connection to a money-hungry tycoon’s mysterious death. The weirdness of the sleepwalking is leavened by the beauty of the human interactions and interconnectedness as we get to know the various shepherds, their motivations and fears, and their own sense of running out of time.
Parts of this book are terrifying. Strangely (or not), I was much more disturbed by the human evil and hate-mongering than by the pandemic threat to all of humanity. Nature, science, possible extinction — these just are, without good or evil. Instead, it’s the people of Wanderers who inspire admiration for their bravery, sacrifice, and wisdom, as well as despair over the cruelty that people display toward one another.
This book takes our current crises related to climate change, increasingly drug-resistant bacteria and viruses, and hate-filled politics, and spins these into a tale that feels prophetic, cautionary, and disturbingly real. Wanderers forces the reader to ask “what if”… and then see how the scenario plays out in full, grisly, technicolor detail.
I suppose I should add, if not already clear, that this book contains violence and cruelty and should be approached cautiously (or not at all) by anyone who may find themselves triggered.
That said, I just loved so many of the characters, felt completely invested in their journeys and ordeals, and could not stop reading. At the risk of sounding incredibly corny, reading Wanderers made me feel like I’d been on a journey too. A terrific read.
I want to note that Craig DiLouie and Chuck Wendig are both new-to-me authors, although they’ve been on my radar for a while now thanks to friends’ recommendations. Having read these two books, I definitely want more! Please let me know if you have suggestions for me!
Side note: I have so much more I’d love to say about both of these books, but with my arm and hand in a cast for several more weeks, typing is a challenge — so I’m keeping this on the short side. Bottom line: Both of these books are 5-star reads for me. I can’t recommend them highly enough!