Okay, here I am, still pretty much in lockdown because of Covid, reading an action/adventure/post-apocalypse book with serious science connections set in a small mountain town of Colorado. The town in question, Ouray, is not one that I have been to (it’s on the other side of the state… you have to travel on a seriously challenging mountain road to get there… it is famously beautiful, however), but I have bought online yarn from an indie dyer in Ouray. Beautiful, set deep in a canyon surrounded by steep mountains, this is the setting for the book Wayward.
Do I want to tell you the whole plot of this book? No, I do not! Here it is in a nutshell: there is an outbreak of a fungal disease that kills almost everyone. It came from bats. An AI interferes in the course of events by targeting a select number of brilliant individuals who are brought to Ouray to become the seed of humanity’s recovery. There are crazy right-wing militias, evangelical leaders hunting for a flock, a self-proclaimed president, tiny nanomachines that live inside of humans, A Good Boy dog named Gumball, a rock and roll legend who provides lyrics on demand when needed, and tons of suspense/action/adventure. There are also a few moments of outrageousness that are beyond the bounds of credibility, but it is a book, right?
Still, there was that scene where two central characters are camping inside a ring of birch trees, their bark glowing in the moonlight. Right. We don’t have birch trees here in Colorado. We have aspen trees, people, not birch. I also choked on my morning latte when one of the characters described his caribou hunt in Colorado… we do have Caribou coffee here, and caribou (well, reindeer) at the Denver Zoo, but no one comes here to hunt caribou in the wild because this isn’t freaking Alaska, people. I just hate when books/authors mess stuff up, which I know is ridiculous when reading a book about a fungal pandemic, a crazy nanomachine-based AI, and other fictional craziness. It still was a pretty good book in a Stephen King, The Last of Us kind of way.
So, I was really hopeful when I started another book set in Colorado. A murder mystery thriller with lots of social and political overtones. Perfect! Here’s the cover:
See that cover art? We’re up in the mountains in kind of a small town. Maybe an old mining town, I tell myself. Clearly the mountains as I can see the ski runs on the mountain in the foreground, and the upper peaks are above treeline, so those peaks are above 12,000 feet in elevation. I settled in to read a great murder mystery set in a mountain town.
Okay, this is a good story, but for me the whole thing was a hot mess. The story is not set in the mountains, but in the foothills south of Denver. Like, exactly where I used to live, drive around and hike. The immediate cognitive dissonance was just jarring as the community of Blackwater Fall was well described in the book as about 20 miles south of Denver with a view of the Lockheed Martin complex to the north and Chatfield Reservoir down below.
I used to go hike the Carpenter Peak trail each summer in Roxborough State Park. It’s a longish day hike, and I would set out mid-morning with my backpack and a hiking pole up the trail, mentally preparing myself to face down mountain lions as I started up the trail. Yep, this is mountain lion country and there is a warning sign as you cross the creek and step foot on the trail. Make noise, try to look big, don’t run, and if attacked, fight back, says the sign. Yep. That’s why I take the hiking pole. I would finally arrive at Carpenter Peak in the early afternoon to eat my lunch among the red rocks at the summit. Golden eagles soared in the wind below me, Chatfield reservoir gleamed to the northeast below me on the plains, and to the north was the Martin Lockheed complex exactly as described in the book. To the west of the peak is a view of endless rolling hills covered with conifers that merge with the true mountains of the continental divide in the distance. The trail to the peak forks right at the end where you can decide to hike the Colorado Trail or turn right for the summit; I always wistfully thought that I would someday to the Colorado Trail, but the view from the peak was what I always settled for in these hikes.
Yeah. There was no town in sight, no falls, no church, no school for the rich and privileged kids of the community, and the rich details of the book kept crashing into reality for me.
Our main character is Anaya Rahman, a Denver police detective who works in a unit that works to ensure justice in marginalized communities. Anaya is of Syrian descent and Muslin, and she struggles with no longer wearing her hijab. She is smart, compassionate, and dedicated to her work. She is sent to Blackwater Falls to solve the horrific murder of a teenager; killed and hung onto the door of a church in an artistic display. Oh, boy. The victim is a Syrian refugee and there is lots going on in this community. Hate and bigotry is everywhere. There is a meat packing plant with Somali workers who want to unionize. There is a high-tech aerospace company creating defensive infrastructure for the southern border. There is an exclusive school filled with entitled rich (white) kids. The FBI is running some type of operation that Anaya’s boss is involved in, and did I mention the motorcycle gang of thugs connected to the far-right church? Violence, bigoty, worker’s rights, the stresses of assimilating new cultures into an existing community, corruption, and you name it, it is here.
For me this book was a hot mess. First off, why is a Denver police detective working a crime scene in Douglas County? Shouldn’t the state be involved if the local sheriff and that force can’t handle the job? Then there was the scene of the crime: everything that can be found wrong in America was crammed into this community put down in a location where I know it can’t exist. My mind keeps careening off into speculation as she describes events in the book. Anaya and her boss drive along Titan Road on their way to interview someone… I’m thinking to myself… wow, that’s the road that was built to haul out the Titan missiles built at that Lockheed Martin plant in the foothills south of Denver when it was Martin Marietta. The victim camps at Marina Point in the Chatfield State Park, and I think… no way could a teenager without a car get there, and it is a crappy campground for tent campers… The meat packing plant full of Somali workers should be located in a town up north of Denver. You know, where the actual meat packing plants are located. The town of Blackwater Falls with its history, waterway, church, and economically divided communities could be something like Louviers, Colorado if you lumped in communities in the area to the east. (Louviers is really cool. It was a company town laid out by Du Pont when dynamite was produced there…) That exclusive school is actually north of there, but you get why I was constantly falling apart while reading the book. She actually called Denver a COW TOWN!!! (Okay, there was a cattle drive down some streets of Denver this month as part of the National Western Stock Show, and there was that steer that had high tea at the Brown Palace in Denver, but still… it like it’s okay for you to call your little brother names, but if someone else does… violence!!)
Cognitive dissonance overload. Maybe a little outrage, too.
Did I mention that I used to teach Somali and Syrian refugee students and I was pretty upset at moments for what those characters in the book were putting up with? I loved those students, and I hated the bigotry that was being portrayed in the book. It seemed so extreme and overblown.
The book really was okay, but the cognitive dissonance and distress about the extreme depictions of, well, corruption, violence, and bigoted views just did me in.
Inaya solves the crime and gets her man, but there are some loose strings hanging that I’m presuming will be picked up in later books in this series.
I’m just going to let them hang.