Book Review: Questland by Carrie Vaughn

Title: Questland
Author: Carrie Vaughn
Publisher: John Joseph Adams/Mariner Books
Publication date: June 22, 2021
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction/fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via Netgalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

YOU FIND YOURSELF IN A MAZE FULL OF TWISTY PASSAGES…

 

Literature professor Dr. Addie Cox is living a happy, if sheltered, life in her ivory tower when Harris Lang, the famously eccentric billionaire tech genius, offers her an unusual job. He wants her to guide a mercenary strike team sent to infiltrate his island retreat off the northwest coast of the United States. Addie is puzzled by her role on the mission until she understands what Lang has built:  Insula Mirabilis, an isolated resort where tourists will one day pay big bucks for a convincing, high-tech-powered fantasy-world experience, complete with dragons, unicorns, and, yes, magic.

 

Unfortunately, one of the island’s employees has gone rogue and activated an invisible force shield that has cut off all outside communication. A Coast Guard cutter attempting to pass through the shield has been destroyed. Suspicion rests on Dominic Brand, the project’s head designer— and Addie Cox’s ex-boyfriend. Lang has tasked Addie and the mercenary team with taking back control of the island at any cost.

 

But Addie is wrestling demons of her own—and not the fantastical kind. Now, she must navigate the deadly traps of Insula Mirabilis as well as her own past trauma. And no d20, however lucky, can help Addie make this saving throw.

To understand the basic premise of Questland, it’s helpful to refer back to Arthur C. Clarke’s famous statement, explicitly referred to in this book:

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Questland is contemporary fiction, but with technology and fantasy as its underlying themes. In Questland, Professor Addie Cox, an expert in comparative literature with a focus on mythology and fantasy, is approached by tech billionaire Harris Lang with a proposition: Help him reclaim control of his top-secret project, which has been hijacked (supposedly) by his underlings.

The project is a fantasy island in the truest sense of the words: Think Jurassic Park, but instead of T-Rex and velociraptors, insert wizards, goblins, elves, and archers. Insula Mirabilis is conceived of as a fantasy vacation resort, where hardcore gamers and fantasy geeks can immerse themselves in a world in which magic appears to be real. Thanks, of course, to the sufficiently advanced technology to pull it all off.

But Insula Mirabilis seems to have cut off all access and communication with the outside world, and Lang wants it back. Addie is sent to infiltrate the island along with a small band of mercenaries. Addie’s gaming/fantasy brain immediately recognizes her role in all this — their group may have a Cleric and a Ranger, but she’s clearly the Bard.

Her unique knowledge and experience in fantasy worlds quickly becomes important, as the team encounters a Sphinx, a maze, and all sorts of dangerous riddles and traps. Worryingly, the fail-safes for the fantasy elements seem to be turned off — so yes, those arrows and stunners and spider claws can do real damage, and worse.

Addie also carries with her very significant baggage. As a teen, she survived a school shooting, but watched her two closest friends die. Fantasy worlds and gaming became a sort of refuge for Addie:

All I’d ever wanted to do was escape. No, that wasn’t true. All I wanted was for what happened to mean something. Stories meant something, and real life… didn’t.

The plotline of Questland follows Addie and her team’s journey across the island, from the realms of dwarves to the magical and beautiful realm of elves, with random weird encounters with animal villages, Robin Hood and his Merry Men, unicorns, wargs, and more. It’s all so real — but Addie knows it’s not.

My feelings on Questland are mixed. First, delight — who wouldn’t want to inhabit a real-feeling world that incorporates every fantasy element you could possibly desire? It sounds too good to be true, and of course, none of it really is true. For all the mead and antlers and fairy lights, there’s a backroom filled with computers and controllers and transmitters. It may feel like entering a fantasy world, but the ancient stone castle is 3D-printed.

Beyond the delight of the concept, I was often frustrated by the quest itself. The overarching plotline about the corporate takeover veers between being overly complicated and just not very rational. So one faction seizes control of the island — and then everyone there just stays there, wearing costumes and acting as if they live inside the fantasy? To what end, ultimately? If Addie’s team hadn’t arrived, how long would this have gone on?

Still, it’s fun to see Addie use her wits and her geek sensibilities to outsmart the traps and puzzles of the island, getting to be heroic while those around her want to view her as a damsel to be shielded. I wish Addie’s backstory had been even more fleshed out — the pieces dealing with her PTSD and the lingering trauma of her past are sensitively depicted and quite moving.

Never having played D&D or other fantasy-based games or RPGs myself, perhaps I wasn’t quite primed to be the perfect audience for Questland, although I did appreciate how seriously Addie and the island characters take Harry Potter, the Tolkien masterpieces, Narnia, Labyrinth, and more. These aren’t presented in the wink-wink pop culture cool way of many contemporary novels that want to show their characters’ geek cred — instead, in Questland, knowledge of modern fantasy epics is as foundational as a knowledge of Gilgamesh and the Odyssey.

Overall, I enjoyed Questland, but got bored at points with the quest elements. And yet, it’s never a bad thing to see geek culture front and center, being celebrated for all its complexity and wonder. As Addie explains:

I’m not sure any of them really understand — it’s not the stuff. It’s not the magic, the unicorns, the rings. All that’s just things. Fantasy is about what you can’t patent. Honor and heroism and… and… hope.

And as the author says in the end notes:

It’s not just about the sufficiently advanced technology that appears to make magic possible. It’s about a culture hungry for worlds and stories filled with magic. That embraces a sense of wonder instead of being suspicious of it.

If you’re a fan of magical worlds, and especially if you’ve grown up immersing yourself in games and movies that transport you into those worlds, do check out Questland.

**********

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Buy now at AmazonBook DepositoryBookshop.org

Shelf Control #202: Discord’s Apple by Carrie Vaughn

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

cropped-flourish-31609_1280-e1421474289435.png

Title: Discord’s Apple
Author: Carrie Vaughn
Published: 2010
Length: 339 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

When Evie Walker goes home to spend time with her dying father, she discovers that his creaky old house in Hope’s Fort, Colorado, is not the only legacy she stands to inherit. Hidden behind the old basement door is a secret and magical storeroom, a place where wondrous treasures from myth and legend are kept safe until they are needed again.

Of course, this legacy is not without its costs: There are those who will give anything to find a way in.

With the help of her father, a mysterious stranger named Alex, and some unexpected heroes, Evie must guard the storeroom against ancient and malicious forces, protecting the past and the future even as the present unravels. Old heroes and notorious villains alike will rise to fight on her side or to do their best to bring about her defeat.

At stake is the fate of the world and the prevention of nothing less than the apocalypse.
 

How and when I got it:

I bought this book totally on a whim about a year ago, while hanging out in one of my favorite bookstores. 

Why I want to read it:

It sounds like so much fun! First off, I know I really like Carrie Vaughn’s writing (I’ve read 3 of her books so far), and second, I always like a good treasure story! This sounds like an awesome quest tale, not too serious, and probably a great light read for when I need something really escapist. 

What do you think? Would you read this book? 

Please share your thoughts!

__________________________________

Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Top Ten Tuesday: Most Anticipated Book Releases for the First Half of 2020 (plus July!)

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Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl, featuring a different top 10 theme each week. This week’s topic is Most Anticipated Book Releases for the First Half of 2020.

I do fee like I’ve covered this topic already in previous TTT posts (like my winter 2020 TBR list and a list of upcoming ARCs), but what the heck — I never get tired of making top 10 lists! So, here are ten MORE books releasing between now and the middle of July that I’m super excited to read.

  1. Parable of the Sower graphic novel (1/28)
  2. Meat Cute by Gail Carriger (2/16)
  3. When We Were Magic by Sarah Gaily (3/3)
  4. The Book of Koli by M. R. Carey (4/14)
  5. Malorie by Josh Malerman (5/19)
  6. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins (5/19)
  7. The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner (5/26)
  8. The Ghosts of Sherwood by Carrie Vaughn (6/9)
  9. Peace Talks (The Dresden Files, #16) by Jim Butcher (7/14)
  10. The Relentless Moon (Lady Astronaut, #3) by Mary Robinette Kowal (7/14)

What new releases are you most looking forward to in 2020? Share your links, and I’ll come check out your top 10!

Shelf Control #183: Kitty and the Midnight Hour by Carrie Vaughn

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

cropped-flourish-31609_1280-e1421474289435.pngTitle: Kitty and the Midnight Hour
Author: Carrie Vaughn
Published: 2005
Length: 259 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Kitty Norville is a midnight-shift DJ for a Denver radio station – and she also happens to be a werewolf. One night, sick of the usual lame song requests, she accidentally starts ‘The Midnight Hour’, a late-night advice show for the supernaturally disadvantaged. Almost immediately she’s deluged by calls from desperate vampires, werewolves and witches from all across the country, wanting to share their woes and ask her advice.

Kitty’s new show is a raging success, but it’s Kitty herself who could use some help, not least because her monthly change is a deep and dark secret to all but a very special few.

And when she finds one very sexy werewolf-hunter on her tail, not to mention a few homicidal undead, she realises she may just may have bitten off more than she can chew…

How and when I got it:

I picked up a used copy a couple of years ago.

Why I want to read it:

The Kitty Norville series is 14 novels long, plus assorted related shorts, and I do love me a good urban fantasy series… but the reason I picked up this kinda-battered paperback is because I loved Bannerless, Carrie Vaughn’s excellent post-apocalyptic novel (and its sequel, The Wild Dead). Having read those two books, plus Vaughn’s story, “Raisa Stepanova,” from the Dangerous Women anthology, I have a strong suspicion that Carrie Vaughn is an author whose works I need to explore. And anyway… Kitty and the Midnight Hour just sounds like so much fun!

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!

__________________________________

Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Top Ten Tuesday: The best books I read in 2018

snowy10

Happy New Year! Welcome to 2019! 

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl, featuring a different top 10 theme each week. This week’s topic is Best Books I Read In 2018.

According to Goodreads, I gave a 5-star rating to 73 books in 2018, and a 4-star rating to 83. That makes 156 books that I pretty much loved. Yowza, what a year! I don’t think I can limit myself to just 10 books here… so I’ll highlight a few, include a few others by category, and see how it all works out…

Here are (just a few of) my favorites from 2018:

1) Powerful family drama set in Alaska: The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah (review)

2) Two views of an an ancient classic: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller and The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker (review)

3) Terrific historical fiction that I read because of my book group: The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See (review) and The Chilbury Lady’s Choir by Jennifer Ryan (review)

4) A surprising moving short novel by Stephen King:  Elevation (review)

5) Amazing woman-power science fiction:  The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal (review)

6) Action/adventure with THE BEST heroic duo: Hope Never Dies by Andrew Shaffer (review)

7) New books in beloved series:

8) Deliciously fun contemporary romance: 

9) Intriguing story collections:

10) A couple of classics that I finally read!

 

What were your favorite reads of 2018? Please leave me your link!

♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥

Wishing one and all a terrific new year filled with wonderful books!

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The Monday Check-In ~ 11/12/2018

cooltext1850356879 My Monday tradition, including a look back and a look ahead — what I read last week, what new books came my way, and what books are keeping me busy right now. Plus a smattering of other stuff too.

Life.

I may be a little absent during the coming week due to some family happenings, but hope to be back in the swing of things ASAP. Meanwhile, I have plenty of books and my Kindle to keep me company, even if I’m not posting much.

What did I read during the last week?

Someone Like Me by M. R. Carey: I finished this the previous week, but finally posted a review.

The Wild Dead by Carrie Vaughn: I loved this book, a sequel to last year’s Bannerless. My review is here.

I also read two super cute, super fun young adult books this week. Check out my thoughts, here.

In audiobooks:

Page (Protector of the Small, #2) by Tamora Pierce: I loved this book! The series is terrific so far — continuing onward.

In graphic novels:

I enjoyed The Odyssey by Gareth Hinds, a pretty great graphic retelling of the classic. He has a new version of The Iliad coming out in the spring, and I’m already looking forward to it!

Outlander returns!

I’m writing reaction posts for each episode of season 4:

Episode 401, “America the Beautiful” (aired 11/4/2018) – check out my thoughts here.
Episode 402, “Do No Harm” (aired 11/11/2018) – my reaction from last night, here.

Fresh Catch:

A few new books this week:

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:

So many books — it’s so hard to choose! I finished a book late Sunday, which means I need to pick something new to read. I’ll probably bounce between these two for the next few days.

Now playing via audiobook:

Squire (Protector of the Small, #3) by Tamora Pierce: Such a fun series!

Ongoing reads:

Book group reads:

  • Classic read: My book group’s current classic read is Middlemarch by George Eliot.  We’re reading and discussing two chapters per week, aiming to finish in January.
  • The Scottish Prisoner by Diana Gabaldon. An ongoing group read, two chapters per week — we’ll be finished in December. Want to join in? Ask me how!

So many books, so little time…

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Book Review: The Wild Dead (The Bannerless Saga, #2) by Carrie Vaughn

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 than 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?

The Wild Dead is a sequel to last year’s Bannerless, which I loved. (Check out my review of Bannerless, here.) In Bannerless, author Carrie Vaughn does an amazing job of creating a post-apocalyptic world in which the focus is not on the disaster itself (known here as the Fall), but on life 100 years later. Humanity has survived, and in the Coast Road community (California), life revolves around households — groups of adults who build a home together, a communal dwelling where all are invested in the success of the whole. Communities are groups of households with a central committee and a commitment to the greater good. It’s a mostly agrarian society, where everyone contributes according to their abilities, and all are provided for… provided, that is, that some basic rules are followed.

The guiding principle in this world is producing enough, but not more. Quotas govern all farming, so that no one destroys the scarce natural resources by using up too much, too quickly. Households that demonstrate that they can support themselves may be granted banners, the most coveted reward of all. A Banner is a license to have a baby. A household may earn a banner through hard work and dedication — but a household that tries to skirt the rules may be denied a banner forever.

Enid of Haven is an investigator — the closest thing this society has to law enforcement. In this post-technology world, Enid can’t rely on firearms or fingerprint dusting or forensic science; she has to use her brain and her people skills to ask questions, dig deep, and find the truth of a community’s secrets. Enid is good at her job, but as The Wild Dead opens, she’s mostly annoyed about being called away from her home in Haven to carry out a seemingly pointless investigation right as her household is expecting its first baby.

The investigation is set in the community of Estuary, a marshy, unpleasant location where the people live in uneasy proximity to one another. There’s no true closeness or cooperation in Estuary — the people seem argumentative and suspicious. And while Enid’s case is simply about determining whether an old house should be preserved, the situation becomes complicated by the discovery of a body belonging to an outsider. As the investigation shifts from mediation to a murder case, Enig and her partner Teeg try to find a way to get the people of Estuary to share their secrets.

The Bannerless world is opened up further in this second book in the series. In the first book, the author did an amazing feat of world-building, showing us the Coast Road society, the nature of this post-tech world and how the people live. At the same time, she gives us a glimpse into the history of the Fall and how civilization re-formed in the century since then. In The Wild Dead, we explore further, and learn for the first time about the people who live outside the society of the Coast Road, choosing to live wild and with fewer resources rather than be restricted by the rules that dictate so many basic elements of life, including child-bearing.

The puzzle of the dead body is intriguing, and I enjoyed seeing Enid use her wits and intuition to read the situation in Estuary and finally arrive at the truth. The mystery aspects of the story are quite good, and held my attention from beginning to end. But truly, what I really love about these books is the detailed description of this unique world and how it works, and getting to understand the psychology of a society which has survived what could have been the end and has created a new version of the future.

(In some ways, I’m reminded of The Walking Dead — minus the zombies, of course — particularly the newest season, when the communities have rediscovered non-industrial era technology such as plows and windmills as a way of surviving and building after a disaster. But I digress…)

Enid is a terrific main character — smart, strong, fair, and devoted to her people and to doing what’s right. She’s not perfect, and she struggles with herself quite a bit, but in the end, she’s committed to the essence of being an investigator: helping others, and being kind.

I highly recommend both Bannerless and The Wild Dead. I’m really hoping this will be an ongoing series. I can’t see myself ever getting tired of Enid or her world.

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The details:

Title: The Wild Dead
Author: Carrie Vaughn
Publisher: John Joseph Adams/Mariner Books
Publication date: July 17, 2018
Length: 264 pages
Genre: Speculative fiction
Source: Purchased

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The Monday Check-In ~ 11/5/2018

cooltext1850356879 My Monday tradition, including a look back and a look ahead — what I read last week, what new books came my way, and what books are keeping me busy right now. Plus a smattering of other stuff too.

What did I read during the last week?

Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak: Sadly, I did not love this new novel by the author of The Book Thief. My review is here.

Someone Like Me by M. R. Carey: Just finished last night! Review to follow.

In audiobooks:

First Test (Protector of the Small, #1) by Tamora Pierce: I’m back in Tortall! I finished listening to the first book in the Protector of the Small quartet. So much fun.

Outlander returns!

Outlander is back! Season 4 premiered last night, and the first episode was amazing. The show feels like it’s opening a whole new phase, and I’m so excited to see where it goes. I’ll be doing reaction posts for each episode, as I did last season. Stay turned for my episode 1 post, coming today or tomorrow.

Elsewhere in pop culture:

The big entertainment events for me this week:

I saw Waitress, and loved it! Now I need to go back and re-watch the movie version.

It was the final Rick Grimes episode on The Walking Dead last night. That ending. Whoa.

Fresh Catch:

The library’s Big Book Sale was this week, and I went — twice! I wrote about my first trip here… and then I went back and came home with yet more books. Here are my two book hauls from the sale:

And hey, that’s not all! I won a giveaway of The Astronaut’s Son by Tom Siegel, courtesy of Jennifer – Tar Heel Reader, and the book (plus some extra goodies) arrived this week.

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:

The Wild Dead by Carrie Vaughn: I’m so excited for this book! It’s the sequel to Bannerless, which I loved.

Now playing via audiobook:

Page (Protector of the Small, #2) by Tamora Pierce: Really enjoying this quartet!

Ongoing reads:

Book group reads:

  • Classic read: My book group’s current classic read is Middlemarch by George Eliot.  We’re reading and discussing two chapters per week, aiming to finish in January.
  • The Scottish Prisoner by Diana Gabaldon. An ongoing group read, two chapters per week — we’ll be finished in December. Want to join in? Ask me how!

So many books, so little time…

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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)

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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

Book Review: Martians Abroad by Carrie Vaughn

martians-abroad

Polly Newton has one single-minded dream, to be a starship pilot and travel the galaxy. Her mother, the director of the Mars Colony, derails Polly’s plans when she sends Polly and her genius twin brother, Charles, to Galileo Academy on Earth—the one planet Polly has no desire to visit. Ever.

Homesick and cut off from her desired future, Polly cannot seem to fit into the constraints of life on Earth, unlike Charles, who deftly maneuvers around people and sees through their behavior to their true motives. Strange, unexplained, dangerous coincidences centered on their high-profile classmates begin piling up. Charles may be right—there’s more going on than would appear, and the stakes are high. With the help of Charles, Polly is determined to find the truth, no matter the cost.

Martians Abroad is a fun space romp, but somehow feels a bit unfinished — as if this is the introduction to a new series, not (as it’s described on Goodreads) a stand-alone.

There’s also the issue that while this book is billed as science fiction, it reads very much young adult to me. The main characters, Polly and Charles, are 17 years old. Although we don’t learn their exact age until the end of the book, the story focuses on their assignment to a new school, and it’s clear that they’re about college age at the start of the story.

In fact, if you took out the sci-fi trappings, much of the story is straight-up coming of age stuff — being an outsider, figuring out where you belong, dealing with cliques, exploring one’s own path, standing up to authority. The fact that it’s set in a brave new world gives it an extra zing, but the ingredients feel very familiar.

That said, I enjoyed Polly as a character very much. She’s independent, focused, and strong, with a rebellious streak and a core of integrity that sees her through the challenges that spring up in her path.

The best part of Martians Abroad, for me, was getting to see Earth through the eyes of someone experiencing it all for the first time. Polly was born and raised on Mars, and to her, Mars is home. She has no desire to leave it, except to fulfill her dream of becoming a pilot. The brown-red colors and the dust are what’s normal to her. Coming to Earth, Polly has shock after shock. Her body has to adjust to Earth’s gravity, so that she feels sluggish constantly and struggles for breath. Her Earth-born classmates are bulky and strong in comparison to the off-worlders’ elongated builds and their brittle bones. Polly has bouts of agoraphobia when stepping outside for the first time and dealing with the open sky. In Polly’s home world, she’d be dead without enclosures to keep the air in and scrubbed clean. Over and over again, we see Polly confront our world, and it’s fascinating (and entertaining) to see how alien it can all look.

A few small examples: Attending a banquet with fancy decorations, including floral centerpieces and arches:

They were cut — I checked, they didn’t have roots, just stems stuck in water. They’d all be dead in a few days. This room had more flowers than entire greenhouses on Mars, and they were all dying. It seemed a little sad.

Polly’s first encounter with Earth-style breakfast:

“Good. I was going to warn you not to eat the bacon, it will probably make you sick. We don’t have the stomach enzymes to digest it.”

[…]

“What’s bacon?” I said.

“Fried pig muscle.”

And on the universality of sweets:

There was a cake — happily, I wasn’t going to have to get anyone to explain cake to me. We had round, fluffy, mooshy sweet things on Mars, because humanity couldn’t exist without dessert.

As Polly acclimates to her school and the planet, she begins to suspect that something sinister is behind a string of accidents that befall her class, and she puts herself in danger time and again to keep others safe and uncover the truth. The accidents provide the key points of excitement in the novel, and there are moments of great adventure and thrill… but unfortunately, the pacing is uneven, so we get these spots of action in between longer segments on daily life at the academy and Polly’s attempts to find a place for herself.

Heck, there’s even dress shopping in the mix. A makeover! Doesn’t that just reinforce the YA-ness of it all?

I don’t really mean to sound overly negative. This is a fun book, but it was a bit too YA and not enough sci-fi for my taste, and I had the odd experience of never quite having a real feel for what kind of book it was that I was reading.

Overall though, I enjoyed Martians Abroad. I can’t help wondering whether there’s more to come. As I mentioned earlier, although it’s billed as a stand-alone, much of this book feels like a long introduction. We’ve met Polly, her classmates, her school — the question is, now what? While the book works on its own well enough, it seems natural that there should be further adventures.

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The details:

Title: Martians Abroad
Author: Carrie Vaughn
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: January 17, 2017
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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