AUTHOR: Darren Charlton
RELEASED: February 2020; Stripes Publishing
GENRE: YA Science Fiction
KEY INFO: post-Apocalyptic American, zombies, romance, dark secrets, winter settings
REPRESENTATION: m/m relationship between lead characters
death, queer death
Synopsis: Winter was the only season every Lake-Lander feared…
In a post-apocalyptic America, a community survives in a national park, surrounded by water that keeps the Dead at bay. But when winter comes, there’s nothing to stop them from crossing the ice.
Then homebody Peter puts the camp in danger by naively allowing a stranger to come ashore and he’s forced to leave the community of Wranglestone. Now he must help rancher Cooper, the boy he’s always watched from afar, herd the Dead from their shores before the lake freezes over.
But as love blossoms, a dark discovery reveals the sanctuary’s secret past. One that forces the pair to question everything they’ve ever known.
Let me tell you about the joy I feel over the existence of a YA gay zombie thriller because I have had to endure far too many stories about heterosexuals during zombie apocalypse’s. Wranglestone is a refreshing take on this well trodden path not only in terms of its gay representation but also for its beautifully written and atmospheric writing and for Charlton’s take on zombies. I do have a few complicated feelings about Wranglestone which I’ll touch upon in the rest of my review but on the whole I enjoyed reading Wranglestone and think that this is an intriguing debut from a talented new YA writer.
First I want to touch upon Charlton’s writing and the general atmosphere of Wranglestone because it was one of my favourite things about this book. I honestly adored the way that this book was written especially during the first half of the book where I feel that Charlton’s ability to capture and portray detail, atmosphere and setting really comes into its element. Wranglestone is set in post-apocalyptic America in a national park; surrounded by a huge lake, enclosed within dense forest, and with a backdrop of snowy mountains. When reading Wranglestone, you really feel like you’re there. I could perfectly picture this wilderness and pored over the descriptions of Wranglestone’s setting. It very much reminded me of Far Cry 5 which I am absolutely here for.
For almost his entire life, our main protagonist Peter has lived on one of the small islands that make up Wranglestone; separated from the main community by the lake which they cross on canoes until the ice freezes over. However, when Peter makes a dreadful mistake which puts the community at risk of infection, he is forced to brave the dangers of the mainland just as winter is setting in and the freezing temperature beings to encroach. For the first time, Peter sets foot on the mainland, coming into contact with terrifying zombies up close and exploring the wilderness that surrounds him which means that we get to picture this beautiful land through his eyes as he drinks in the world around him and, as a result, we’re treated so some beautiful descriptions. In addition to the descriptive writing, Wranglestone also offers an eerie atmosphere of something that is *not quite right* which builds progressively throughout the book as Peter learns and discovers more about his community, zombies and what is really ‘out there’.
The one thing that didn’t quite hit the mark for me in terms of writing was to do with the pacing of the book. I’m not sure if some of this is to do with the fact that I had an early ARC version of the book, as I noticed on Goodreads that the length of the book is recorded as being 383 pages long but my version was only 239, but certainly in my copy there were important parts of the story that felt majorly rushed through and which really took the punch out of their delivery which bothered me. I’m hoping that the final version is longer and that this is something which has been adjusted.
There is an interesting array of characters who make up the community at Wranglestone as well as some others that we encounter as the story develops, though the stars of the show are surely Peter and his love interest, Cooper. My heart was all aflutter as the two boys got to know each other and started to interact with each other in a romantic way, and I was very much here for their blossoming romance. It is not an easy romance or relationship though as secrets are unearthed and tensions rise, causing conflict between the two boys that they must learn to navigate. As a MC, Peter is very much a naive and sheltered protagonist who, sometimes, frustrated me whilst Cooper is very much a rough-skinned southern boy who wrangles the dead, sees laundry washing as some weird past time, and charms everyone he meets. Wranglestone is a coming of age story and romance about Peter and Cooper yet I very much appreciated Charlton’s refusal to involve any kind of “coming out” element within the book. Peter is gay – that already seems to be established before the start of the book – and there never seems to be any kind of reaction to Cooper’s relationship with Peter, which I found refreshing and very much appreciated.
One aspect of the characters that I would have liked to have seen explored better is better development of some of the side characters in the story. There are a few scenes in the book where the characters don’t feel very fleshed out and the characters actions and dialogue didn’t feel believable, especially towards the end of the book where the story felt a lot more rushed and there were things that happened which I really wasn’t sold on.
In addition to being a story about coming of age, Wranglestone is very much a story about secrets. This is the hardest section to talk about without giving any spoilers so I don’t want to say too much especially as secrets are such a big part of the overall narrative. Charlton not only uses secrets to propel character development (especially Peter’s) and the plot but also uses these secrets to challenge zombie tropes and speak to wider issues, particularly otherness. Without giving too much away, I enjoyed Charlton’s take on zombies in the sense that he explored some avenues that I was very interested in with The Walking Dead series that were never fully explored (in regards to season one of the TV series) and it was interesting to see how this developed.
Regarding using zombies to talk about otherness though is something that I wasn’t completely sold on and, at times, this is something that made me uncomfortable. Given that this is an m/m romance and that Charlton is a gay author, I got the sense that this sense of otherness was very much related to queerness (especially given the history of gay men and AIDS in America). It tapped into fears around love and difference, and themes of segregation and taboos. However, I think there’s also an element of whiteness within this story which stood out to me (in that the entire cast appears to be white, Cooper’s blonde hair is described as “tendrils” which make it sound like he has dreads and there are references to the “pale ones” and being outcasted) which made me feel quite conflicted. However, these are thoughts which I haven’t really been able to process well enough to be able to speak on this more coherently yet and I would be interested to read about others thoughts once the book has been released.
Overall, I think that Wranglestone is a promising debut novel from Darren Charlton and on the whole there were many elements that I enjoyed about it. As with my reviews of all debut novels, I have been a little more generous with my rating of 4 stars to reflect that debut authors are at the start of their journey. The beginning of Wranglestone was wholeheartedly a 5 star read for me but I felt that this dropped towards the latter half of the book for the reasons I touched upon in the above sections. Although I think that the ending of Wranglestone could have been stronger, it’s an exciting book that I think many will enjoy and I will be eagerly anticipating hearing others’ reading experiences once Wranglestone has been released on 6th February 2020. A huge thank you to Stripes Publishing for providing me with an ARC of Wranglestone.