Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Review: The Cautious Traveller's Guide to the Wastelands by Sarah Brooks

The Cautious Traveller's Guide to the Wastelands by Sarah Brooks
Flatiron Books
Publication Date: April 25th, 2024
Hardcover. 336 pages.

About The Cautious Traveller's Guide to the Wastelands:

"It is said there is a price that every passenger must pay. A price beyond the cost of a ticket.

It is the end of the 19th Century and the world is awash with marvels. But there is nothing so marvellous as the Wastelands: a terrain of terrible miracles that lies between Beijing and Moscow.

Nothing touches this abandoned wilderness except the Great Trans-Siberian Express: an impenetrable train built to carry cargo across continents, but which now transports anyone who dares to cross the shadowy Wastelands.

On to the platform steps a curious cast of characters: a grieving woman with a borrowed name, a famous child born on the train and a disgraced naturalist, all heading for the Great Exhibition in Moscow.

But the old rules are changing, and there are whispers that the train isn't safe. As secrets and stories begin to unravel the passengers and crew must survive their journey through the Wastelands together, even as something uncontrollable seems to be breaking in . . ."

The Cautious Traveller's Guide to the Wastelands is a highly atmospheric story filled with mystery and hints of horror as readers are filled with as much dread and anticipation as the characters aboard the Trans-Siberian Express. The cover and title for this book made me initially think that this would be more of a creepy mystery that leaned on the 'lighter' side in tone, but I'd like to note that that's definitely not the case, and this book feels a lot more horror-leaning (a very quiet, slow-burn feeling of horror) than I might've expected, and I loved it.

The Trans-Siberian Express travels between Beijing and Moscow, but it's no ordinary journey as it must pass through the Wastelands, an abandoned stretch of land where everything that now grows and lives within it poses both physical and mental threats to anyone who dares to pass through. A trip through the Wastelands is therefore not for the faint of heart, but the great Trans-Siberian Express boasts the strongest glass and the safest possible mode of transportation to get through the Wastelands. But all travellers must be cautious, as even looking out the window for too long at whatever resides in the Wastelands can pose risks to any person's sanity, and everyone onboard must be vigilant of succumbing to the effects of the Wastelands–and keep an eye on fellow passenger. This particular journey across the Wastelands feels especially tense, as it's the first trip to occur after a previous less-than-perfect crossing where the indestructible glass broke and the full events of what occurred are still unknown to those who were not a part of the journey.

We follow three passengers onboard, each with different experiences and reasons for being on the train. First up is Weiwei, a child of the train who has lived and worked on the train her entire life; next is Marya, a woman who has boarded the train under false pretenses in order to uncover a personal mystery; lastly, we follow Henry Grey, a disgraced naturalist whose dream is to renew his reputation in the field by bringing back something groundbreaking from the Wastelands. I appreciated that each character had a very unique perspective on the Wastelands and their reason for being on the train for this journey, and Brooks did a a great job of capturing each person's personality in such a way that I felt I could fully understand each person's motivation (even if I didn't fully agree with each character's choices...) throughout the entire story. I also really loved that the train and the Wastelands themselves are characters as much as any of the humans onboard. 

This book hit such a perfect spot for me, as I love stories that tease at something entirely unknown that feels incredibly creepy and slowly feeds you more and more information while you still have no idea what's lurking around the corner the entire time. It's a very slow build up that's filled with so many hints of twisted, unnerving, and generally dark things that reside in the Wastelands that I couldn't help but feel my own curiosity constantly piqued to know what horrors lay outside the walls of the train. This story evokes an almost constant sense of trepidation–like that feeling where you really want to know why everyone is so scared and what's being alluded to, but you also aren't sure if you really want to know, and every glimpse you get just makes it that much more intense. 

There's a lot of build-up in this story and I think satisfaction with the payoff will vary from person to person. I was generally quite satisfied with what this story grew into and how it eventually concluded, but I do think there are some areas where it could feel like there was a lot of build-up that didn't quite develop into anything overly exciting. That being said, I appreciated the messages the author focused on and think this ended up being a much more meaningful and thoughtful story than I anticipated, and I liked that Brooks managed to pack so much into this story, from the more horror-tinged side to the meaning and substance portrayed through the characters' journeys as well. 

As much as I loved the slow burn style of this story, I have to admit that it was exceptionally slow-paced at times, and I ended up taking probably twice as long as I expected to to finish this book. It was a odd experience, because even enjoyed pretty much every page of this book and always looked forward to reading it, for some reason every time I sat down to read it ended up taking me a longer than usual time to get through each page and I found myself getting more distracted than usual. This could have just been on me (maybe I was feeling more stressed than usual at the time?), but it was just one of those books that had absolutely nothing wrong with it that I could pinpoint, but the writing and pacing were just so slow that it really required me to slow down as well for some reason. This may or may not be the case for everyone, but is something I felt compelled to note since it really stood out to my experience. 

Overall, I've given The Cautious Traveller's Guide to the Wastelands 4.25 stars! I loved the heavily atmospheric quality of this book and how much it left me dying to find out more. I highly recommend this one and can't wait to see what Sarah Brooks may write next!

*I received a copy of The Cautious Traveller's Guide to the Wastelands in exchange for an honest review. This has no effect on my rating.*

Buy the book: Amazon | Bookshop.org

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