Disclosure: I received a copy of this book free of charge for review purposes only. Receipt of a book does not guarantee a review or endorsement.

the cautious traveller's guide to the wastelandsAt the end of the 19th century, the Great Trans-Siberian Express passes through a vast wasteland, walled off from the rest of China and Russia. Inside the wastelands, things have changed, and no one must set foot outside the train. It’s been a year since the last journey, when a terrible calamity occurred, and the windows cracked. None of the passengers can remember what happened, but the Company is quick to assign blame to the glassmaker.

The Cautious Traveller may baulk at the very mention of the Greater Siberian Wastelands, at spaces so vast and unkind and stories so inimical to our sense of all that is decent and good.

Marya Petrovna is the glassmaker’s daughter, travelling in disguise as a mourning widow. Her father wasn’t the same after the glass broke, and she wants answers. Henry Grey is a naturalist, determined to regain his standing among his peers with a great discovery from the wastelands.

Zhang Weiwei is a child who has spent her entire life on the train. A child of the wastelands, the train is her home. The Captain is a woman revered. There are a bunch of other characters making the journey, including the Crows, the company men who lurk menacingly in the carriages, ready to pounce on anything unauthorised.

The train must run. That is the only truth that matters. Not who is destroyed along the way.

The wastelands themselves reminded me a bit of Southern Reach, and I wish more of the story was dedicated to outside rather than the safety of the train. What happened wasn’t really explained, and for me there wasn’t enough detail on the supernatural elements. I didn’t care about the characters all that much. Perhaps because there were so many of them, it only scratched the surface of who they were. I was disappointed that the Captain was built up so much but then barely appeared in the story.

There’s a lot of time describing the practicalities of being on the train, but when things started to get interesting, it was all over very quickly. I thought the resolution was a bit too easy too. A promising idea that might be more appealing to readers of historical fiction and magical realism.

It is said that so much blood had been taken from the land that it was always hungry. It had been feeding off the blood spilt by the empires, and by the bones of the animals and people they left behind. It gained a taste for death.

The Cautious Traveller’s Guide to the Wastelands is published by W&N and will be available in hardback, ebook and audiobook editions from 20th June 2024. Thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy for review via NetGalley.

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