AUTHOR: Carrie Vaughn
352 pages, John Joseph Adams books, ISBN 9780544947306
Publication Date: July 11, 2017 (I received an uncorrected proof ARC in exchange for an honest review)
DESCRIPTION: (from the back cover): A mysterious murder in a dystopian future leads a novice investigator to question what she’s learned about the foundation of her population-controlled society.
Decades after economic and environmental collapse destroys much of civilization in the United States, the Coast Road region isn’t just surviving but thriving by some accounts, building something new on the ruins of what came before. A culture of population control has developed in which people, organized into households, must earn the children they bear by proving they can take care of them and are awarded symbolic banners to demonstrate this privilege. In the meantime, birth control is mandatory. Enid of Haven is an Investigator, called on to mediate disputes and examine transgressions against the community. She’s young for the job and hasn’t yet handled a serious case. Now, though, a suspicious death requires her attention. The victim was an outcast, but might someone have taken dislike a step further and murdered him? In a world defined by the disasters that happened a century before, the past is always present. But this investigation may reveal the cracks in Enid’s world and make her question what she really stands for.
MY RATING: FIVE out of FIVE STARS
MY THOUGHTS: I first encountered the post-apocalyptic world Carrie Vaughn reveals to us in such great detail in her new novel Bannerless in a short story of the same title back in 2015. That story, which introduced not only the world of the Coast Road communities but also lead character Enid, appeared in the anthology The End Has Come, part of John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey’s Apocalypse Triptych. Readers interested in seeing an older, more experienced Enid should seek out that anthology, or head over to Wired.com to read the story for free. You don’t need to have read the original story to understand Enid or the world she lives in. This novel shows us a younger Enid, discovering who she is and how she’s going to survive as an Investigator.
Let’s talk about the world-building first.
In this not-too-terribly-distant future, civilization as we know now it has collapsed due not to a single Extinction Level Event but a combination of “smaller” catastrophic events that build on each other the way a solid combination punch does in professional boxing: climate change combined with disease combined with overpopulation stagger humanity’s ability to cope and recover. But humanity never goes completely down for the count, and a generation or so later we have the Coast Road society: tied to the earth, supremely aware of how susceptible they are to drastic weather, depletion of natural resources, and the possibility of over-population. As a whole, at least in this particular region, humanity is hanging in there and still fighting. But as we see multiple times in this novel: those who don’t learn the lessons of the past are doomed to repeat them. Life in this near future is not easy, despite the content home lives of most of the characters. Fishing, hunting, harvesting, trading … all come with the threat of injury or death attached, and the world no longer has the medical-pharmaceutical-surgical capabilities it once did. Vaughn drives this home repeatedly: the world post-apocalypse will be lacking much of currently keeps people alive. The only difference between the world of Bannerless and, say, the medieval or Renaissance world is whether people know what they don’t have – and the characters in Bannerless are painfully aware (and frequently reminded) of what’s been lost. That’s part of what I loved about the short story and the novel: this world is not so far in the future that our own “modern” world has been relegated to myth, but there are clear indications it is headed into that territory. This is important to the way resources, including the ability to have children, are allocated. This future society’s approach to population control – enforced birth control until a household earns a banner and thus the right to conceive and raise a child – is likely to be the subject of many reviews of the book. Is the system Vaughn posits a fair one? Probably not, but then again many of our current laws aren’t either. Does it make sense in the context of the world Vaughn has built? Absolutely. I can easily imagine that fear of a return to overpopulation and the depletion of natural resources and increased diseases caused by it would lead to some extremes. But the author also makes it clear: birth control is being used to control population growth rather than some Puritanical “abstention from sex except when trying to procreate” rules. Sex in the world of Bannerless is natural and expected and exists in all its wide varieties and combinations of partners. No one is shamed or cast out because of it.
We explore this fascinating world and the selfless and selfish characters who inhabit it, through the eyes of Enid. Vaughn has structured the book so that alternating chapters show us Enid in her present, as a beginning Investigator encountering her first big complicated case, as well as Enid in her past, as a curious young woman experiencing Coast Road society outside of her home town. Of course, the past is prologue to the present; flashback details bleed over into the present the way they should when handled in a format like this. We the readers are essentially experiencing two mysteries at once: the possible murder of a loner in the present, and the question of how Enid became an investigator in the past.
In the past, Enid falls heavily in love with a traveling musician named Dak and decides to leave Haven to experience the world with him. This Enid is a bit more head-strong, a bit less likely to take stock of a situation, a bit more likely to let her emotions lead her actions. And Dak enables this behavior with his charm and wit. These chapters are full of details that reveal not all Coast Road towns or homesteads are the same, showing Enid that not everyone is as comfortable (if that word can be used in this world) as her town of Haven is. Vaughn also drops hints as to what lies beyond the Coast Road, and it is my fervent hope that these distances will be explored more deeply in future installments because the small views we got were tantalizing. In these chapters, the characters Enid encounters (such as Petula house-head Fisher, her son Stev, and their town-mate Xander) help expand, or expound upon, the world-building.
In the present, Enid journeys with fellow Investigator, and childhood friend, Tomas, to the town of Pasadan. They’re answering a summons to investigate a mysterious death, but it quickly becomes obvious that internal town politics and failure to learn the lessons of the past are going to complicate what should be a fairly straightforward case. In these chapters, the world-building becomes less centered and more subtle as the author introduces the characters involved in, and spools out the details of, a fair-play, multi-suspect murder mystery. And it is very “fair play,” the kind of mystery, sans post-apocalyptic setting, I can imagine Sherlock Holmes or Hamish Macbeth solving. If the “possible suspects” are bit more archetypal (the battling town council members Philos and Ariana; the possible young lovers Miran and Kirk; even the disliked outcast victim Sero) and a bit less nuanced than the characters of the flashbacks, it can be accepted as part of the genre Vaughn is importing. They each do their job in providing clues and red herrings for the mystery as well as propelling Enid’s character arc. By the end of the novel, we can see shades of the older Enid of the short story.
What ties the alternating chapters together is the consistencies in Enid’s character. At both ages, she is willful and head-strong, apt to let emotions lead her. If the older Enid is more able to tamp anger down in service to the greater good, the younger Enid’s impetuousness serves that greater good almost as effectively. And at any age, Enid is a great listener and avid learner, which draws the reader into the world around her. She’s a character I’m interested in spending a lot more time with.