Review - The Cautious Traveller's Guide to the Wastelands

I’m finally getting round to posting my review of what may well be my book of the year – just in time for its release this month.

I was desperate to get my hands on a copy of this book as soon as it started appearing on social media. Following a focused campaign of unsubtle hinting, a beautifully packaged ARC landed on my doormat, just in time for a weekend in Lisbon. My journey was considerably less eventful than that of the train passengers in the book, but it gave me time to get thoroughly immersed in the story of the Trans-Siberian Express.

I can’t really think of any books to which I can compare this one. It’s a unique story told by a writer with a strong, original voice, and it’s hard to believe it is a debut novel. It blends mystery, magic realism and alternate history into something that’s hard to define but entirely wonderful. The only real comparisons I can make are Babel and The Night Circus, in terms of the deft way in which the alternate world is handled, with enough world building to ground the reader, but not so much that it overwhelms the story. I love books that get that balance right, telling you This is how it is with enough certainty that you are happy to surrender yourself to the story, confident that the things you don’t yet understand will be revealed at the right time.

The Trans-Siberian Express is an armoured fortress on wheels, sealed tight against any possible incursion from outside as it travels through the strange Wastelands. The threat is a shifting, formless one, described in hints and sideways references. You mustn’t stare out of the window too long or you risk inviting it in. You can’t breathe the air. You need to watch your fellow passengers for any hint of a dangerous malady. There are defences against attacks from strange creatures. There are threats and mysteries inside the train too, with the stories of several characters winding together around the central mystery of what happened on the train’s last, fateful journey. There are several viewpoint characters, but Wei-Wei, the child of the train, emerges as the main protagonist. I loved Wei-Wei, and would have been happy to follow her through the whole book, but the other characters were also real and compelling. They felt as though they had fully realised existences before the start of the story, with hints and glimpses of their previous lives – something I love in books.

It’s hard to give any real detail about the story without spoiling it, but I will say that the ending left me wishing I could have stayed with the train much longer. There were some aspects of the story – mainly to do with the fear that the Wastelands engendered – that made me think of Annihilation, but, ultimately, the changed lands of this story are something very, very different to the terrifying world of that film. There are some clear and strong themes, which, again, I can’t really detail here without dipping into spoilers. While the title refers to cautious travellers, anyone thinking of reading this book should abandon all caution and throw themselves into the world of the Trans-Siberian Express. It’s a journey very much worth taking, and I wish I could read it for the first time again.