This is an apocalyptic story and generally I love those. As I write this, I am of two minds whether I really liked it or not.
As usual, the world is going to you-know-where in a handbasket. One day, Shana’s younger fifteen-year-old sister, Nessie, gets out of bed in her pajamas and starts walking down the road. Shana eventually catches up to her but is unable to get her attention or dissuade her. Frantic, but terrified of leaving her sister alone, she eventually runs back to get her father. Together they find her on the road and attempt to restrain her but she has a terrible physical reaction and Shana and her father are forced to release her. Nessie is joined on the road by another walker, a local school teacher and then a woman joins the two walkers. Eventually, of course, the local police show up to “stop this” as they are wont to do. The police forcibly remove the school teacher from the road and put him in a squad car…the man also has a terrible physical reaction; rising temperature, shaking like a seizure and then literally blows up; taking the cop with him due to bone shrapnel. Horrified, the gathered crowd realized one important thing: the walkers cannot be stopped. Despite Shana’s concerns, the walkers are physically impervious to hazards in the road or weather…and, later they discover they are equally impervious to needles of any kind. As the miles wear on, the group grows as people unexpectedly drop what they are doing and join the flock, as they are named. And the flock is also joined by others like Shana, concerned enough about their loved ones to accompany them; coming to be known as Shepherds.
The CDC is called in to investigate and that brings Dr. Benji Ray, a disgraced investigator but called back in for his expertise, Arav, a junior researcher and Sadie, another researcher and past lover of Benji. But all their efforts and research fail to produce a single clue or reason for the existence of the flock. The news starts following the story and towns turn out to watch the flock as they pass, gathering up more walkers. And generating fear…
A small-town preacher, much more concerned about his own issues and his congregation than his own family, starts to use the flock to invigorate his sermons. His “enthusiasm” is noted by a local rancher who brings him to the attention of a podcast host who starts bringing Pastor Matthew onto his show which gives him a national voice. But while he never intended to demonize the flock, he is gradually manipulated into doing just that. And as his popularity grows, his family begins to disintegrate; his son becoming more withdrawn and associating with local white supremacists, his wife attempting suicide. Eventually, Matthew comes to realize he has become a puppet of militants who see the flock as a political tool to bring one of their own to the White House. And when he attempts to leave, he finds that it is way too late for that; his popularity guarantees that he will never be allowed to stop preaching the word, as the militants decree.
And finally: Black Swan, the codename for a secret sentient computer program. Sadie is a programmer for Black Swan and she and her colleagues have learned some terrifying facts about the failing world. When Sadie attempts to bring Benji into the fold, he resists and refuses to accept the information. But when Black Swan points the CDC researchers in the direction of a remote bit of swampland in the Florida, what they find there does convince Benji. And from that moment, his life and the future of the world is never the same. And the future of the flock just might be the future of the world according to the vision of a computer program; which may or may not have the best interests of the human race in mind. A computer program that can lie…
As the world reels under the onslaught of a vicious pandemic, the white supremacists see the opportunity to finally return the country to its proper position in the world, led by white men. The flock is impervious to the fatal disease but the Shepherds are not; and then they discover the flock is not impervious to bullets. And once the Shepherds understand the future of mankind is dependent on the flock reaching their destination, it becomes more a case of protecting the flock than just providing comfort. But the Shepherds are not trained militants…
There is mystery and romance here; self-revelations and the usual warnings of how precarious is our human condition. The characters are really well-realized, the world-building is good and the plot is sufficiently complex and interesting. And while the world-is-doomed scenario is familiar, Wendig did manage to bring a little twist to the story. One thing that really stuck out as irrelevant, however, were the hints that a passing comet had some influence on events but it was never used in the story conclusively. I felt that to be a cheat. It was a very long book, not unlike Stephen King stories to which this has been compared. It seemed like the author wanted enough space to answer any and all questions that might come up in the readers’ minds about the life on the road with the flock or the utility of Black Swan; and we learned way too much, gratuitously, of the violence of which men are capable when determined to bend others to their beliefs. He also wanted to challenge our understanding of artificial intelligences. There might have been a kitchen sink in there somewhere.
So, I find I am still of two minds. It was a satisfying journey and will probably be more appreciated by readers who have not become inured to King books. I was unhappy about the ending in that it relied too heavily on familiar tropes; I won’t tell, you’ll have to judge for yourself. And, ultimately, I didn’t think it was effective in delivering the author’s message of save-the-world-while-we-can. But Wendig is a very competent author with an easy facility with characters and dialogue so I expect better things from him in the future. ~~ Catherine Book
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