Wranglestone by Darren Charlton

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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Publisher: Stripes Publishing

Publish Date: 6 February 2020

Page Count: 384 pages

If you follow my blog, you’ll know I try to highlight diversity in SFF. So I was surprised to notice I’ve only ever read two books with a gay male protagonist, both of which featured (literal) fairies, a trope commonly used in romance novels that isn’t really my style.

So when I started seeing reviews of Wranglestone, a zombie novel featuring a m/m romance, it went straight onto my ‘To Be Read’ list and was my most anticipated read for August. I’m pleased to say that I loved this book and, if anything, it exceeded my expectations.

“Peter was born into a world of unwanted visitors. And Winter on Lake Wranglestone sure as hell was one of them”.

Darren Charlton’s novel tells the story of 16-year-old Peter who was raised on Lake Wranglestone, a haven from the Restless Dead. The lake’s residents live safely on their small islands until Winter when the frozen lake surface allows the Restless Dead to shamble to their doors once again. And Winter is fast approaching.

Peter is sensitive and particular, spending his time mending clothes and making his Dad’s treehouse more homely, a stark contrast to the zombie-herding Cooper who he watches from afar. When Peter encounters a stranger and fails to follow protocol, he is forced to prove his worth to the other Lake Landers by travelling to the mainland. With the help of Cooper, Peter finds not only the Restless Dead but long-hidden secrets that will change his reality.

While there isn’t necessarily a shortage of gay fiction, it doesn’t often cross paths with my usual SFF tastes, and I’m not overly interested in coming out stories or the many narratives where ‘gay’ equals ‘victim’. Foyles Bookshop explained the appeal of this book perfectly in their review, saying “Wranglestone really has it all and is sure to delight readers with its characters and story, whilst also promoting the normalcy of gay relationships, without the usual trials and anguish of so many LGBT stories”.

This is the second book in a row that has surprised me with its YA designation. While Wranglestone is a fairly quick and easy read, it doesn’t pander to its target audience. It’s a fast-paced, unpredictable story, balanced with exciting themes and world-building, making it an engaging read even for readers not regularly jumping into YA.

Charlton clearly has a love of nature and wilderness that shines through in his writing. The setting of the national park is beautifully atmospheric, making the book feel like an escape (we’ve rented a cabin in the woods for my birthday and I’m considering bringing along Wranglestone just for the creepiness). While the story is almost entirely confined to Lake Wranglestone, the world-building is unique and interesting.

While there isn’t a lack of undead gore in this story, the focus of the novel is less on the horror elements and more on the flawed nature of humanity. It was this aspect of the book that took me by surprise, and I really enjoyed the last 25% of the book, which was unexpected and tense.

I also loved the romance between Peter and Cooper. I’ve read one or two reviews that felt it was a little sudden and hard to believe, but I think it works well, the setting of the story making their relationship feel organic and vital. Wranglestone has me wondering if I do like romance after all, but just require it to be gay and camouflaged in cool, dystopian horror. Time will tell.

Wranglestone is not just the positive gay rep I’ve always wanted, but an interesting take on a dystopian world ruled by self-preservation and desperation. I think it would have been personally significant for me to come across an affirming book like this in high school, so if there is a queer, SFF-loving teenager in your life, I think it’s important that you buy them a copy.

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