TITLE: The Wild Dead (Bannerless, Book 2)
AUTHOR: Carrie Vaughn
264 pages, John Joseph Adams Books, ISBN 9780544947313 (paperback, audio and e-book)
DESCRIPTION: A century after environmental and economic collapse, the people of the Coast Road have rebuilt their own sort of civilization, striving not to make the mistakes their ancestors did. They strictly ration and manage resources, including the ability to have children. Enid of Haven is an investigator, who with her new partner, Teeg, is called on to mediate a dispute over an old building in a far-flung settlement at the edge of Coast Road territory. The investigators’ decision seems straightforward – and then the body of a young woman turns up in the nearby marshland. Almost more shocking that that, she’s not from the Coast Road but from one of the outsider camps belonging to the nomads and wild folk who live outside the Coast Road communities. Now one of them is dead, and Enid wants to find out who killed her even as Teeg argues that the murder isn’t their problem. In a dystopian future of isolated communities, can our moral sense survive the worst hard times?
MY RATING: 5 stars out of 5
(Disclaimer: although this review is very late in being posted, I did receive a print Advanced Reading Copy from John Joseph Adams Books in return for an honest review)
The second book in Carrie Vaughn’s post-apocalyptic murder mystery series builds on the promise of the first without being a static retread. Like the first book, this one is about as “cozy” of a mystery as you can get set in a world where electricity, and thus forensic crime labs, stopped working decades ago. But Vaughn builds more on the world itself, on how disparate communities are tied together by commerce and law more than mutual respect. On the one hand, everyone on the Coast Road knows they really can’t survive without working and trading with others. On the other hand, they still have fierce independent (and sometimes selfish) personal drives that typify 21st century Americans. In both Bannerless and The Wild Dead, Vaughn explores the rubbing up of rugged individualism against communal necessity.
This struggle, and several others, are represented most obviously by the community disagreement Enid and Teeg are sent to resolve: whether a remote community’s households should be required to pool resources to help one household repair and retain a pre-apocalypse structure. The community has worked together for the greater good before, but personality conflicts and varying interpretations of what is necessary for the whole versus selfish nostalgia threaten to overwhelm everyone. The point is made all the more clear when an outsider is discovered dead – is it worth Enid and Teeg’s time, is it worth the community’s resources, to investigate the death of a nameless girl from beyond the Coast Road, from a nomadic society the Coast Roaders don’t trust or see as equal/deserving? Enid, perhaps because of her past, feels it is worth the costs; her partner, not so much. The cozy mystery becomes part of a deeper personality/societal conflict which Vaughn explores through dialogue and nuanced description of the two communities Enid must navigate to find her answers.
The “Us vs. Them” mentality, the distrust of those who are different, is also prevalent. Is the Coast Road’s settle small community crops-and-barter system really any better at preserving civilization than the Wild Land’s nomadic scavenge-and-hunt structure? Vaughn doesn’t choose one over the other, and leaves her main protagonist undecided while other characters’ opinions are obvious.
No-one in the book ever actually utters the idiom “don’t look back, you’re not going that way,” but the conflict between nostalgia and moving forward is there from the battle over a failing structure to a 15-year-old community conflict that potentially affects current events. How long do we hold onto the past regardless of its usefulness? How long do we hold onto things we should have let go of for our own mental health? What does institutional memory look like when technology has failed and how do we learn from a past we can no longer access?
The murder mystery that brings all these interpersonal conflicts to light is a fair-play one. All the hints needed to put together what happened and why are laid out for the reader – some obviously, some so subtly you don’t realize what you read until much later. Vaughn’s ability to structure and spool out the details, including a fair number of red herrings, is so good I would gladly read any non-SF/F mystery she might choose to write in the future.
There’s so much more I’d love to comment on in the book: Teeg’s impatience, so trope-ily “millennial;” the sly winks at long running “amateur sleuth” series; Enid’s continued growth as an individual and as a member of a family unit; how easy it would be for a new reader to start with this book and still understand the characters and their world. But I’ve rambled on quite a bit already.
Vaughn really does a wonderful job of mashing the “apocalyptic SF” and “cozy mystery” genres, drawing on the strengths of each and occasionally conflating or subverting the tropes. If you know mystery fans who want to dip their toes into the SF genre, or vice versa, Vaughn’s Bannerless Saga books are the place to start them off.