Book Review: Bannerless by Carrie Vaughn

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.

Bannerless is a unique and interesting approach to the dystopian genre. In fact, if you took away the references to “the Fall”, you might almost think you were reading a story of agrarian life in the Middle Ages. Let me explain…

In Bannerless, we follow main character Enid, a resident of the town of Haven whose occupation is investigator. Investigators are both detectives and enforcers, sent from settlement to settlement to look into complaints, solve problems, and if needed, impose sentences. Investigators tend to be feared — when these outsiders show up wearing their official brown tunics, it’s likely to end in repercussions either for individuals, households, or possibly the entire town.

Enid’s village lies among the geographic area known as the Coast Road, sets of smaller and larger settlements who interact for trading, messages, and resources. All follow the same general governing principles. The towns are primarily agrarian, and all members of a community have roles to play. Towns may only produce up to their quotas, so that resources are preserved for for the future. People form households to work together to show productivity, and if they prove that they can support more, they are awarded banners, which give them the right to have a child.

All in all, it sounds like a rather peaceful and healthy way to go about life. Community is all-important. People offer one another help when needed, and when help is provided, there’s a commitment made to repay expended resources when the recipient is able.

As I mentioned, if you didn’t know the setting, you might think this story takes place a few centuries ago. It has that old-fashioned, idyllic feel to it. But we do know that there was a Fall — and while the author doesn’t go into tremendous detail, it becomes clear that civilization fell over the course of years in which the world was devasted by epidemics, followed by substantial climate change that brought life-threatening changes in weather patterns. Enid’s adult life takes place about a century after the Fall, and she still remembers her Aunt Kath, who was the oldest member of Haven and the only one to remember the time before. From Kath, Enid learns about how life used to be, from silly details (like a yearning for plastic wrap) to issues around birth control and reproduction.

In terms of the plot of Bannerless, we follow two timelines in alternating chapters. We see Enid and her investigator partner Tomas, a member of her birth household, as they investigate a suspicious death in the nearby town of Pasadan. This in itself is shocking — while their investigations mainly focus on banner or quota violations, murder is pretty much unheard of. Meanwhile, in every other chapter, we follow the story of Enid from about 10 years earlier, when she followed her lover on his journeys from town to town, and along the way, learns much more about the communities, the ruins of cities, and her own calling.

What’s unusual about Bannerless, and what makes me hesitate to call it “dystopian”, is that the societal structure seems to work. There are no castes or debasing rules or the other types of harsh governance that seem to be the hallmark of the genre. Yes, the story takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, but the people seem to have worked out a system that makes sense for them. The rules about banners and birth control don’t strike me as autocratic or despotic; they go hand in hand with the focus on resources and quotas. The communities bear an awareness of the disasters that led to civilization’s downfall, and they’re determined to avoid the excesses that result in barren lands and starving children.

And while Enid and others occasionally yearn for the resources they’ve heard about through stories about life before the Fall (medical equipment and reliable lab tests, for example), they’ve found a way to manage and preserve what they have, to share and take communal responsibility for one another, and to sustain future generations by conserving current resources.

Yes, the breaking up of households who flout the rules may sound harsh, but there’s a lot of reasonableness too. Of all the various fictional scenarios of life post-disaster, the world of Bannerless sounds pretty okay to me.

The book itself is a quick, engaging read. Don’t expect explosions or intense battles or action scenes. The drama is all about the people, their interactions, and their motives — although this book does a great job of demonstrating how scary it can be to be caught out in the open when a storm is on the way.

According to the author’s page on Goodreads, she’s working on a sequel, and Bannerless is listed as the first in a series. I had no idea while I was reading the book that this would be an ongoing story, and Bannerless works perfectly well as a stand-alone. (I’m glad I didn’t know ahead of time; I tend to avoid starting new series, and I’d hate to think that I might have missed out on a good book because of my series-aversion!)

I’ve enjoyed other books and stories by Carrie Vaughn (although I haven’t read her Kitty Norville series, which seems to be her best-known work), and I will definitely read the 2nd book whenever it comes out.

Interested in this author? Check out my reviews of other books:
After the Golden Age
Martians Abroad
“Raisa Stepanova” (Dangerous Women anthology)


The details:

Title: Bannerless
Author: Carrie Vaughn
Publisher: John Joseph Adams/Mariner
Publication date: July 11, 2017
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased

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