The Cautious Traveller’s Guide to the Wastelands (Sarah Brooks) – book review

Lots of great speculative fiction books involve steam trains. Some highlights of this China Mieville’s Iron Council, Terry Pratchett’s Raising Steam to Harry Potter’s Hogwarts Express. And of course, being steam driven, trains often feature in pretty much anything written in the steampunk sub-genre. Sarah Brooks’ debut draws on some of this but also on the New Weird of Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation series and her own research into monsters in Chinese ghost stories as inspirations for her train-based historical fantasy debut The Cautious Traveller’s Guide to the Wastelands.

Sometime in the 19th Century, strange things started to happen in Siberia. Russia and China walled off the area which became known as ‘the Wastelands’. But trade still needed to flow and so the Trans-Siberian Railroad Company took the risk and built a rail line and an armoured, self contained train that could make the fifteen day journey across the Wastelands without needing to stop and refuel or resupply. When The Cautious Traveller’s Guide to the Wastelands opens (following a quote from the eponymous guide), it is 1899 the Great Trans-Siberian Express has been once again cleared to make the trip from Beijing to Moscow after an incident that had saw it stopped.

Boarding the train undercover is Marya, who is secretly investigating the death of her father, the glassmaker who died after train’s previous trip and Henry Grey, a naturalist trying to rebuild his reputation by getting samples from the Wastelands. Already part of the crew is Weiwei Zhang, known as a child of the train as she was born on board and adopted by the crew as a baby when her mother died.

There’s a lot of set up – introductions to not only these three characters but a fascinating cast of passengers and crew. So that the book, like the great train itself, takes a while to build up a head of steam. But once the plot gets moving it is hard to stop. While out the windows are the Wastelands, an alluring landscape of shifting views, strange creatures and constant danger. Particularly after the train is damaged and has to move onto a set of ‘ghost tracks’, the tension escalates and the dangers (if that is indeed what they are) come ever closer.

The Cautious Traveller’s Guide to the Wastelands explores the interplay between the traditional and the exotic. The solid, seemingly impervious train, that moves through a constantly evolving, unpredictable landscape. And in particular, the way the different characters react to this from fear of the unknown, to a desire to a collect and catalogue, through to a need just to understand the phenomenon, and in doing so perhaps become a part of it.

Sarah Brooks has taken a range of influences to craft a uniquely weird historical fantasy novel. Unlike its title, The Cautious Traveller’s Guide to the Wastelands is anything but cautious, delivering a highly idiosyncratic world and a range of complex characters to inhabit it. It is an incredibly accomplished debut that draws on a number of modern fantasy and science fiction tropes to deliver something startlingly unique.

Robert Goodman
For more of Robert’s reviews, visit his blog Pile By the Bed


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