What to Read Next (No. 265): Underrated Dystopian Novels
Featuring "Our Missing Hearts" and "Wanderers"
Happy Friday, readers!
I’ve always really enjoyed the dystopia genre of books. It’s fun to think what happens to society and relationships when everything extraneous is stripped away. What will matter in the end?
This week I’m happy to feature a couple underrated dystopian books which seek to answer that question.
Celeste Ng is one of the most recognizable names in literature right now. Mega-hits Everything I Never Told You and Little Fires Everywhere catapulted her popularity, though I’ve seen significantly less buzz about her most recent book, Our Missing Hearts.
Chuck Wendig, on the other hand, deserves far more recognition. Like Stephen King, though, Wendig suffers due to the simple fact that he writes in genres that the bookish establishment doesn’t pay as much attention to: sci-fi, horror, and dystopia. Wanderers, published in 2019, was one of my favorite reads last year.
Let’s jump in!
Upgrade to a paid subscription to support this newsletter and to get my weekly “This & That” feature, which is full of links, lists, ideas, recommendations, and more:
Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng
“Why did I tell you so many stories? Because I wanted the world to make sense to you. I wanted to make sense of the world, for you. I wanted the world to make sense.”
This story, the first Ng title I’ve read, is rather powerful and has stayed with me since I first read it at the beginning of the year. Which makes its absence from bookish internet chatter all the more surprising.
In a near-future United States, 12-year-old Bird is pulled into a quest to find his mother, who abruptly left the family three years prior. It’s a society that’s similar to George Orwell’s vision in 1984: surveillance is everywhere and you can be jailed — or have your children taken away — for critical remarks towards the government.
One day, Bird receives a cryptic letter in the mail, containing only drawings of cats. But amidst this feline menagerie is a message. With the help of an underground network of librarians, he sets out on a quest that’ll change everything.
There were a couple things I particularly enjoyed about Our Missing Hearts. First, the mystery that forms the spine of the narrative was compelling enough to keep the pages turning at a fast clip. It was definitely giving me some Shadow of the Wind vibes. At a base level, I always enjoy a book that has me eager to find out what happens next.
Second, Ng includes a strong message about storytelling as a form of resistance and protest against injustice. Stories have the power to change hearts and minds.
Our Missing Hearts is a timely book that both entertains and has something important to say.
Wanderers by Chuck Wendig
“God was never about power over us. It was about the power we possessed to either be good and in His graces, or be selfish and wretched in His shadow. So to speak. Hell is being in that shadow. It's not in the next world, but this one, right now, anytime you choose not to do the right thing.”
In Chuck Wendig’s gripping, heartfelt apocalyptic novel, two strange and seemingly unconnected plagues are sweeping the nation. One forces people into a comatose state of sleepwalking; what’s particularly unusual is that these sleepwalkers come together into a “herd” and start making their way west across America. The other is a deadly fungal infection that looks like it has world-ending potential.
It’s up to a couple rogue CDC staffers to connect the dots, figure out what’s happening, and put a stop to it before time runs out and there’s no world to save.
Given that it was written in 2019, Wendig’s rendering of pandemic life is pretty spot-on. He just takes it a few dozen steps further and gives us a couple really interesting and unexpected plot twists. The story ended up going in directions I didn’t see coming, which made it all the more memorable and enjoyable.
There are a lot of plague-apocalypse books out there, but Wanderers stands out. The characters were complex, but still easy to root for. The set-up and orchestration of the disease was unique among the genre and very well done. And like all good apocalypse books (The Stand and The Road, especially) there’s also an undercurrent of good vs. evil running through the entire narrative.
I soared through all 850 pages of Wanderers and I’m excited to read the sequel, Wayward, which was published late last year. I highly recommend it if this is a genre you enjoy.
That’s all for me this week! Thanks so much for reading. I deeply appreciate the time and inbox space.
Wanderers was great. I didn’t know there was a sequel. Thanks!
I really need to read more Chuck Wendig. The only thing I've read of his is the Star Wars: Aftermath trilogy. Those were great but I want to see what he can do when not tethered to an IP.