Book Review: The Cautious Travellers Guide to the Wasteland is a mysterious adventure about connection and belonging

The Cautious Travellers Guide to the Wasteland

There are books where you feel like you are watching the action unfold and there are books where you feel like you are somehow part of the action. The Cautious Traveller’s Guide to the Wasteland, a historical fantasy by Sarah Brooks, is certainly one of the latter. This is largely due to its intimate setting on the Great Trans-Siberian Express, and partially because of the slow unravelling of each character’s secrets and desires. Everything about the way this book is written gives the reader a sense of the closeness in proximity in which all the characters exist, and squeezes you into the space to become another passenger on this dangerous and mysterious journey.

The year is 1899. A mysterious change has been sweeping across the land between China and Russia. This abandoned wilderness is now known as the Wastelands. Impenetrable walls keep the changes at bay and travel across the Wastelands is restricted to a solitary train – The Great Trans-Siberian Express, owned by The Company based in England, and staffed with workers from both China and Russia. This impenetrable train carries cargo and passengers at great speeds across the continents, bringing it’s business partners great wealth. But something happened on its last crossing. Something no one seems to remember.

As the train prepares for its next crossing from Beijing to Moscow, tensions are high. Is the train still safe? Wei Wei, the famous child of the train, born and abandoned during one of its crossings, fears the closure of the train and the changes the last crossing has brought to her life on it – the only life she knows.

Marya Petrovna, using a borrowed name, boards to discover the truth of the last crossing, unsatisfied with the explanation of The Company. Henry Grey, a disgraced scientist, is determined to restore his reputation by disobeying the rules of the train in order to present evidence from the Wastelands at the Great Exhibition in Moscow. As the train leaves the station in Beijing, each passenger holds secrets, fears and desires that will intersect and endanger them all. Because something uncontrollable from the Wastelands wants to get in.

The pacing of the story progresses with the speed of the train, lending the story an overall rhythm that feels like you are riding the train along with the passengers. Intrigue is built from the very first line, and each character’s introduction immediately builds on the complexity of the mysteries surrounding the train. And just like the variety of people riding the train, there are a number of ways in which Brooks explores our world and how humans attempt to shape it and belong to it.

The stories of Wei Wei and Marya could easily be described as coming of age stories, as both women grapple with changes to their lives that threaten the stability they’ve always known. Since the Wastelands is an obvious metaphor for change, the larger societal questions posed by the story with regards to capitalism (represented by The Company) and its impact on the environment, is neatly folded into the personal exploration of the inevitability of change and how we approach it as individuals.

Similarly, the changes observed in The Wasteland point towards a world in which the environment and humans co-exist more completely. With all this in mind, the story is undoubtedly an exploration of eco-activism and the forces both societally and personally that oppose change in that space.

There is so much to be discussed, and too many levels of detail which could be unravelled. Suffice to say that the composition of the story binds these big ideas into a mysterious and intriguing narrative, filled to the brim with interesting characters between the crew and the passengers, and enchanting in its descriptions and explorations of both nature and the train.

This book was truly a joy to read, and genuinely feels like you are embarking on an adventure. If complex characters in close proximity trying to hide their secrets from each other appeals to you, this book is sure to tickle your fancy.


The Cautious Travellers Guide to the Wasteland by Sarah Brooks is available now from Hachette.

Jess Gately

Jess Gately is a freelance editor and writer with a particular love for speculative fiction and graphic novels.