Wednesday , July 17 2024
The Cautious Travellers Guide to the Wastelands

Book Review: ‘A Cautious Traveller’s Guide to the Wastelands’ by Sarah Brooks

The Wastelands

In The Cautious Traveller’s Guide to the Wastelands Sarah Brooks has created both an exciting adventure story and a wonderful metaphor for so-called civilization’s attitude towards Indigenous culture and land practices. If a natural resource isn’t being exploited, or a patch of land cultivated, it supposedly is wasted.

Brooks sets her story at the end of the 19th century. In a massive territory between China and Russia something has happened. The land has been reclaimed by an odd wilderness populated by strange creatures, landscapes, and atmospheres that are inimical to civilized behavior. 

However, no matter the danger, progress must get through and overcome the primitive world. The Trans Siberian Company (whose modus operandi makes one think of the infamous East Indian Trading Company) runs the Trans Siberian Railway through the Wastelands in the name of progress and profit. Heavily armored and armed against the dangers a crossing can face, each train carries precious cargo and passengers from China to Russia and back again.

Brooks has recreated the world of the 19th century in intricate detail, from the descriptions of class distinctions to the burgeoning power of companies to shape political and social policy. As the train pushes through the so-called Wasteland, more and more of the realities of this world are revealed.

It’s with her characters that Brooks and the story really shine. From the denizens of First Class to the train’s crew, we learn not only of the history of the Wastelands, but the reality of traveling through it. Even as we learn that the train itself is like a rolling fortress, we also learn that the outside still manages to leak in.

Passengers are warned not to let their gazes linger on anything they see beyond the windows of the train, on the off chance it may cause them to have abnormal thoughts. They are also told to report any sign of strange behavior in their fellow passengers to the train’s doctor immediately, so they may be treated as necessary.

Then there’s the mystery of the previous trip. Nobody, from the train’s Captain down to the crew, knows what happened (or is willing to talk). But something did. The Wastelands managed to pass through the armor and glass and leave something behind. 

As we travel through the Wastelands with the passengers and the train Brooks gradually turns our perspectives on their heads. When we start we have no reason to not believe the line being sold by the Trans Siberian Company – that the territory is unsafe. However, the longer the trip progresses the more we realize the opposite is true: It’s the company that’s unsafe.

The Cautious Traveller’s Guide to the Wastelands by Sarah Brooks is a fascinating read. Populated by a diverse cast of characters and set in a landscape both terrifying and fascinating, it makes for an exciting journey through time and place. That it’s also an intelligent and relevant social commentary is only a bonus.

About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of three books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion" and "Introduction to Greek Mythology For Kids". Aside from Blogcritics he contributes to Qantara.de and his work has appeared in the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and has been translated into numerous languages in multiple publications.

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