Book review of The Cautious Traveller’s Guide to the Wastelands

Trains are, for whatever reason, surprisingly common in contemporary genre fiction. Perhaps it is their predictability, with their reliance on firmly laid tracks and regular timetables representing an imposition of order on a chaotic world. But rarely is this made so explicit as in Sarah Brooks’ The Cautious Traveller’s Guide to the Wastelands, where a train is the last bastion of civilization in the region that was once Sibera, which has now become a chthonic cauldron of mutated flora and fauna, all of it hostile to humankind.

Brooks never explains why, exactly, Siberia transformed into the riotous Wasteland. She simply asserts that it has, that it is enclosed by a wall and that only one entity dares cross it: the Company, via its Trans-Siberian Express. On its last voyage, there was an accident that resulted in the deaths of three people. The Company, being a sinister avatar of faceless, capitalistic inhumanity, is dedicated to preserving the secrecy around these events, while Marya Petrovna, daughter of the glassmaker who was blamed for the accident, has dedicated herself to piercing that veil. However, none of the train’s crew or its most frequent passengers seem to remember what happened, from its captain and first engineer, Alexei, on down to a bookish professor and the enigmatic Zhang Weiwei, who has spent her entire life on the train.

Part of me felt like I had read this book before, or perhaps seen it on film. The obvious comparison is Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, but I found more commonalities with classic sci-fi like Asimov’s Foundation and Earth and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, mixed with Borges’ more animistic magic and a few dashes of Agatha Christie for good measure. The Cautious Traveller’s Guide to the Wastelands reads more like magical realism than fantasy, forcing the reader to inhabit the same inexplicable universe as the characters themselves. Brooks’ concise prose prioritizes clarity over decoration, and is suffused with casual slang and inside jokes. This steampunk fairy tale may be largely populated with archetypes and borrowed tropes, but Brooks has still made it compelling and novel. Her train through perdition is a worthy addition to the pantheon.

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