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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Book Review: Vox by Christina Dalcher


Set in an America where half the population has been silenced, VOX is the harrowing, unforgettable story of what one woman will do to protect herself and her daughter.

On the day the government decrees that women are no longer allowed more than 100 words daily, Dr. Jean McClellan is in denial—this can’t happen here. Not in America. Not to her.

This is just the beginning.

Soon women can no longer hold jobs. Girls are no longer taught to read or write. Females no longer have a voice. Before, the average person spoke sixteen thousand words a day, but now women only have one hundred to make themselves heard.

But this is not the end.

For herself, her daughter, and every woman silenced, Jean will reclaim her voice.

Vox is a look at a United States where the government has been taken over — not by force, but by the power of the voting booth. A magnetic leader of the Christian right has rallied his followers to vote for his puppet candidate, and suddenly, the US government is in the hands of people who very much want to restore the country to a time when women stayed home, cared for their families, and were seen but not heard.

AP science classes in high school are replaced by AP Religious Studies, focusing on Christian philosophy. Boys and girls are educated separately, with girls’ studies focusing on home economics and basic math — just enough to be able to run a household, not enough to actually encourage higher thinking or learning.

Most insidious of all, all females in the population are fitted with metal counters on their wrists, tracking their allotment of 100 words per day. Woe betide the woman who talks in her sleep! Every utterance counts. And if you exceed your daily allotment, you receive a nasty little reminder by way of electric shock.

We view this warped world through the eyes of Dr. Jean McClellan, an esteemed neurolinguist who, like all professional women, is denied her work, her money, and her independence. She’s reliant on her husband for everything, and even her jerky teen-aged son has more autonomy than she does, spouting off his anti-woman rhetoric that he’s so quickly absorbed through the poisoned atmosphere of school.

It’s a compelling and intriguing set-up, and the writing keeps the plot move along at a fast pace. While the book focuses on the awfulness of this society and the punishments meted out to those who dare bend or break the rules, it’s quite chilling. The story becomes less compelling in the final third, as the tone shifts more to scientific thriller and away from the greater societal upheavals at play.

I found the premise mostly implausible. I’ve read several of these types of books by now, and the key to making me believe in them is in providing enough information to make the world of the book feel real and possible. Vox fails to truly establish how we got from our current society to the society of the book in just one year. How exactly did the people in charge come up with the counters and get them installed on all women? How did they manage to enforce the new society so quickly and with so little opposition? There isn’t enough backstory here to make me believe in it, and that ended up being an obstacle for me in terms of getting fully engaged in the story.

Vox is a gripping read, and it tries very hard to be topical and timely, a warning for our age and a call to action. Look, it seems to say — stand up now and be heard, or face a future where you may have no voice at all. Yes, being heard and taking a stand are worthy messages to put out there, but the lack of foundation in Vox makes the actual threat feel too shadowy and unbelievable.

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The details:

Title: Vox
Author: Christina Dalcher
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: August 21, 2018
Length: 326 pages
Genre: Dystopian fiction
Source: Library

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Book Review: Thunderhead (Arc of a Scythe, #2) by Neal Shusterman

 

Rowan and Citra take opposite stances on the morality of the Scythedom, putting them at odds, in the chilling sequel to the Printz Honor Book Scythe from New York Times bestseller Neal Shusterman, author of the Unwind dystology.

The Thunderhead cannot interfere in the affairs of the Scythedom. All it can do is observe—it does not like what it sees.

A year has passed since Rowan had gone off grid. Since then, he has become an urban legend, a vigilante snuffing out corrupt scythes in a trial by fire. His story is told in whispers across the continent.

As Scythe Anastasia, Citra gleans with compassion and openly challenges the ideals of the “new order.” But when her life is threatened and her methods questioned, it becomes clear that not everyone is open to the change.

Will the Thunderhead intervene?

Or will it simply watch as this perfect world begins to unravel?

I absolutely loved Scythe, the first book in the Arc of a Scythe series. So it should be no surprise that I found myself swept away by Thunderhead, book #2, simply unable to put it down once I started.

Note: This review may be a bit spoilery, since it’s for the 2nd in a series. Look away now if you want to be spoiler-free!

Scythe ended on a suspenseful note. Apprentice Scythes Citra and Rowan make it to their final rite of passage, and while Citra is ordained, taking the name Scythe Anastasia, Rowan is not accepted into the scythedom. By rules of their apprenticeship, Citra should now “glean” (kill, permanently, with no revival) Rowan, but instead, she makes sure he gets a year’s immunity from gleaning and he escapes. By the end of the book, we know that Rowan has gone rogue, illegally donning the robes of a scythe and making it his mission to eliminate the worst of the scythes — those who kill for pleasure rather than as a means of keeping balance in the world.

Thunderhead picks right up with the action, as Citra/Anastasia carries out her scythe duties with thoughtfulness and purpose. Scythes are necessary tools in a world in which death has been banished. Without scythes, overpopulation and starvation would result, killing off humanity just as surely as war and disease did back in the mortal age. Anastasia treats those to be gleaned with respect and compassion, and while her task is still grim, she gives it a dignity that “new order” scythes find ridiculous, boring, and unnecessarily serious.

Things become deadly when Anastasia and her mentor Scythe Curie are almost killed in a bombing attack. Everything in the world is governed by the Thunderhead, the sentient intelligence that evolved from cloud computing. The Thunderhead is all-knowing, and has as its mission the preservation of life on the planet to the best of its ability. The one area removed from Thunderhead control is the scythedom — a rule created by the Thunderhead to ensure that humans could make the decisions necessary for their own species’ survival without undue interference. But over the course of the book, the Thunderhead realizes that the things it doesn’t know and doesn’t see, thanks to this separation, may spell doom rather than salvation for humanity.

Scattered throughout the book are pages narrated by the Thunderhead itself, and these are truly fascinating. The Thunderhead knows everything, and knows everyone. It understands what each person needs, and it understands how things must change in order for the world to endure. It knows every probable outcome and the statistical likelihood of every occurrence. And yet, the Thunderhead isn’t some evil computer overlord. It has what it considers the best interest of all things as its focus, and if it can be said to feel, we’d be likely to interpret its musings on human beings as a form of love. Still, there is perhaps something a little creepy about a world in which the illusion of complete choice is deliberately provided by the Thunderhead in certain situations in order for people to feel free, and in which a class of people known as “unsavories” are permitted (and even encouraged) so that those who need a sense of rebellion can get that satisfaction.

I won’t give away too much more, other than to say that the ending is a TREMENDOUS CLIFFHANGER,  with a lead-up that left me gasping. I mean, I could not believe what I was reading, was utterly horrified, kept waiting for things not to be as bad as they seemed (but they were), and could not look away. Really, the ending is a stunner.

Note: Pretty big spoiler here for anyone who’s familiar with classic opera:

At the end, I couldn’t help but chuckle sadly once I realized what exquisite foreshadowing the author used by having characters attend a performance of Aida.

Sorry, I couldn’t not say that.

End of spoilers!

I could rave about this book (and Scythe) a whole lot more, but I think you get the point! I just wish I had someone in my life to discuss this with! I’m trying to push the books on a few bookish friends, and hope to have some success soon. These are books that just NEED to be talked about!

Really, read Scythe and Thunderhead! You’ll thank me, I promise.

And now we wait for #3, coming (I hope) sometime in 2019.

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The details:

Title: Thunderhead (Arc of a Scythe, #2)
Author: Neal Shusterman
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Publication date: January 9, 2018
Length: 504 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Library

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Book Review: Scythe by Neal Shusterman

 

Thou shalt kill.

A world with no hunger, no disease, no war, no misery. Humanity has conquered all those things, and has even conquered death. Now scythes are the only ones who can end life—and they are commanded to do so, in order to keep the size of the population under control.

Citra and Rowan are chosen to apprentice to a scythe—a role that neither wants. These teens must master the “art” of taking life, knowing that the consequence of failure could mean losing their own.

What a fascinating story! I hadn’t heard of Scythe until my son’s high school picked it for their school-wide summer reading book. Once I picked up a copy (ostensibly for my son), I just had to read it. Utterly compelling and impossible to put down.

In the world of Scythe, modern history dates back to the year 2042:

It’s a year that every schoolchild knows. It was the year when computational power became infinite — or so close to infinite that is could no longer be measured. It was the year we knew… everything. “The cloud” evolved into “the Thunderhead,” and now all there is to know about everything resides in the near-infinite memory of the Thunderhead for anyone who wants to access it.

With the coming of the Thunderhead and infinite knowledge, humankind had the answers to everything — disease, hunger, death. People became immortal, and thus, the need for scythes emerged. Generations later, scythes have rockstar status (there are even trading cards), but are also feared and treated as outside normal society. Scythes bring death as they “glean” people, some with thoughtful process and compassion, others with showy spectacle. Yes, people still have accidents and can be “deadish”, but everyone who dies in any manner can be revived, apart from those who have been gleaned. Gleanings are final, and irrevocable.

As Citra and Rowan have their lives transformed, from humdrum teen life to the world of apprenticeship, they’re thrust into a secret society of laws and infighting and a morality all its own. And as the year of apprentice progresses, they learn that some scythes have embraced a more corrupt, corrosive form of scythedom, and that these scythes seem poised to take over completely.

I was utterly absorbed while reading this book. There are some truly deep notions that I can only imagine would make for fabulous discussions. In Scythe, we learn that with infinite knowledge comes a lack of true meaning. Everything that can be known is already known. All accomplishments have been accomplished. Life stretches on forever, and when a person’s body reaches a more advanced age than desired, he or she can simply “turn a corner” and reset back to an earlier age. Without the fear of death or the sense of a limited time to make one’s mark, life is persistent and pleasant, but there’s no sense of urgency. Art suffers — there are no heights of passion or suffering to scale. Everything is nice… but it kind of sounds like a pretty boring way to live forever.

The power plays of the scythes is scary and upsetting to read about. Scythes are untouchable and answer only to their own governing body — so when corrupt scythes who tow the line of the letter of the law while committing horrific acts start climbing to dominance, there’s no balancing force to keep scythedom pure.

I really just can’t say enough good things about this book! I was completely hooked, and can’t wait to start the sequel, Thunderhead.

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The details:

Title: Scythe
Author: Neal Shusterman
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Publication date: November 22, 2016
Length: 435 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Purchased

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Shelf Control #123: American Pacifica by Anna North

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!

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Title: American Pacifica
Author: Anna North
Published: 2011
Length: 294 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

America Pacifica is an island hundreds of miles off the coast of California, the only warm place left in a world in the grip of a new ice age. Darcy Pern is seventeen; her mother has gone missing, and she must uncover the truth about her disappearance–a quest that soon becomes an investigation into the disturbing origins of America Pacifica itself and its sinister and reclusive leader, a man known only as Tyson. America Pacifica invites comparison to the work of Margaret Atwood and China Mieville, to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road for its the touching child-parent relationship, and to Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy for its implacable, determined central character.

How and when I got it:

I bought a copy sometime in the year or so after the book’s release.

Why I want to read it:

I stumbled across a review for this book soon after the publication date, back in 2011, and something about the description of the story stayed in my head. Maybe at that point I hadn’t read quite so many end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it stories, but the synopsis sounded really intriguing, and made me want to learn more about the community and its leader. Even though this book has been on my shelves for way too may years, I’ve never been able to bring myself to donate it or give it away. I will read it one of these days!

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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!

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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: The Book of Etta

 

In the gripping sequel to the Philip K. Dick Award-winning novel The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, one woman undertakes a desperate journey to rescue the future.

Etta comes from Nowhere, a village of survivors of the great plague that wiped away the world that was. In the world that is, women are scarce and childbearing is dangerous…yet desperately necessary for humankind’s future. Mothers and midwives are sacred, but Etta has a different calling. As a scavenger. Loyal to the village but living on her own terms, Etta roams the desolate territory beyond: salvaging useful relics of the ruined past and braving the threat of brutal slave traders, who are seeking women and girls to sell and subjugate.

When slavers seize those she loves, Etta vows to release and avenge them. But her mission will lead her to the stronghold of the Lion—a tyrant who dominates the innocent with terror and violence. There, with no allies and few weapons besides her wits and will, she will risk both body and spirit not only to save lives but also to liberate a new world’s destiny.

The Book of Etta is an interesting follow-up to The Book of the Unnamed Midwife (review), but I didn’t wholeheartedly love it. It’s incredibly interesting and compelling, but there are ways in which I felt it fell a bit short of its potential.

Etta takes place a couple of hundred years after the plague, and it’s fascinating to see how written and oral histories capture the time before and the new types of societies that have arisen afterward. The people living at the time of Etta live mostly in isolated settlements, relying on the rare traveler or trader for outside news, mainly ignorant of anything happening in the greater world or really anything outside their own communities’ walls.

In Nowhere, Etta’s home, women are either Midwives or Mothers. While there are far more men than women, the men are subservient, working for the good of the women and living in Hives built around a central woman. The books left by the unnamed midwife have become holy scriptures to the people of Nowhere, and make clear that most surviving women live as slaves, in abusive situations, or in hiding.

Nowhere seems ideal in some ways, yet even there, Etta feels stifled. As we learn in The Book of Etta, Etta’s gender identity is fluid and she’s romantically and sexually attracted to women, and there’s really no place in the Nowhere community for someone who doesn’t fit the approved roles, even in a woman-centric society.

When Etta ventures out into the world in her role as a raider, she changes into male clothing and thinks of herself as Eddy. The author switches pronouns when Etta is Eddy, which is actually a pretty neat narrative trick that requires the reader to pay attention, yet gives us immediate clues about Etta/Eddy’s inner life and how she/he views her/his self at any moment. Through Etta/Eddy’s eyes, we see just how bad things can get for women. The worst is Estiel (STL = St. Louis), where a tyrant known as the Lion rules by force and terror, holds all females captive for breeding and sex, and raids outlying areas to take any females he can find, including babies and toddlers. Many women are “cut”, and many are drugged or beaten into submission as part of the Lion’s harem. In other communities, the men and women live separately, with men being allowed into the women’s zone for breeding rituals. Young boys may be catamites, castrated and forced into sexual servitude. Each community shows a different aspect of the horrors of the time. Through Etta/Eddy’s journey, we see what may be a hopeless yearning to find a place where labels and rigidly assigned roles are a thing of the past.

The plot is fast-paced and hard to look away from. And yet, there are certain things that made this book not quite successful for me. The Etta/Eddy distinction is interesting, but we end up spending too much time in Etta’s head, often to the detriment of the story’s continuity. It’s not entirely clear to me why Nowhere’s society would frown on relationships between women the way it does, other than a need to show that even a matriarchal power structure contains its own restrictions and limitations. A segment later in the book centers on a community that it literally underground, living in a series of tunnels and bunkers completely hidden below the earth. It’s quite interesting, but certain aspects of that society — its abundant fertility and the role of its leader and prophet — need more explanation, especially as Alma (the prophet) seems to have abilities that verge on the magical, an odd choice in a dystopian novel.

There are some truly horrifying scenes of abuse and rape. This is not an easy or pleasant book. I was reminded in some parts of Octavia Butler’s outstanding (and brutal) books, The Parable of the Sower and The Parable of the Talents.

The Book of Etta has an open ending, as one chapter of Etta’s world ends and the next has yet to be written. The author is working on book 3, The Book of Flora, which I’m very much looking forward to, as Flora is a fascinating and complex character who enters Etta’s life in this book, and clearly has her own story to be told.

All in all, I’m glad that I read The Book of Etta and plan to continue with the trilogy, even though the writing verges on being preachy from time to time. It’s still an interesting look at a terrible vision of the future, and provides some thought-provoking scenarios about gender and identity.

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The details:

Title: The Book of Etta
Author: Meg Elison
Publisher: 47North
Publication date: February 21, 2017
Length: 316 pages
Genre: Dystopian/post-apocalyptic
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Shelf Control #75: The Gate To Women’s Country

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! Fore 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!

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My Shelf Control pick this week is:

Title: The Gate To Women’s Country
Author: Sheri S. Tepper
Published: 1987
Length: 382 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Tepper’s finest novel to date is set in a post-holocaust feminist dystopia that offers only two political alternatives: a repressive polygamist sect that is slowly self-destructing through inbreeding and the matriarchal dictatorship called Women’s Country. Here, in a desperate effort to prevent another world war, the women have segregated most men into closed military garrisons and have taken on themselves every other function of government, industry, agriculture, science and learning.

The resulting manifold responsibilities are seen through the life of Stavia, from a dreaming 10-year-old to maturity as doctor, mother and member of the Marthatown Women’s Council. As in Tepper’s Awakeners series books, the rigid social systems are tempered by the voices of individual experience and, here, by an imaginative reworking of The Trojan Woman that runs through the text. A rewarding and challenging novel that is to be valued for its provocative ideas.

How I got it:

I bought it at a used book store.

When I got it:

A couple of years ago.

Why I want to read it:

This is considered a feminist sci-fi classic, so I’m a bit embarrassed never to have read it. The reviews on Goodreads are all over the place, from 5-stars (including from reviewers I usually trust) to a whole slew of 1-star ratings from people who absolutely hated the book. I think I owe it to myself to at least give it a try.

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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!

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Take A Peek Book Review: The Book of the Unnamed Midwife

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

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Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

The apocalypse will be asymmetrical.

In the aftermath of a plague that has decimated the world population, the unnamed midwife confronts a new reality in which there may be no place for her. Indeed, there may be no place for any woman except at the end of a chain. A radical rearrangement is underway. With one woman left for every ten men, the landscape that the midwife travels is fraught with danger. She must reach safety— but is it safer to go it alone or take a chance on humanity? The friends she makes along the way will force her to choose what’s more important. Civilization stirs from the ruins, taking new and experimental forms. The midwife must help a new world come into being, but birth is always dangerous… and what comes of it is beyond anyone’s control.

My Thoughts:

The whole sub-genre of post-apocalyptic fiction may be well and truly played out. Certainly, there’s very little in The Book of the Unnamed Midwife that we haven’t seen before. That doesn’t mean that this isn’t a worthwhile read, but it’s hard to say that it covers much new ground.

On the plus side, the storyline has at its center an interesting, strong female lead character. She refuses to become a victim, and makes it her priority to help the few surviving women maintain what little control they can over their lives. The depiction of the horror inflicted upon the small number of females left after the plague is chilling and very disturbing.

On the negative end, the writing style is a little uneven. The text is made up of both diary entries and third person narration of the midwife’s journeys. The diary entries for the main character are jerky and full of symbols, and the transition between these and the actual action of the narrative isn’t always smooth.

I was interested enough in the overall story to stick with it despite some clunky moments and the pieces that simply try too hard to deliver the book’s agenda. The supporting characters add a nice variety to the story, showing the different types of lives left after the disaster, and I thought it was a chilling touch to include an omniscient narrator’s recounting of what ended up happening to all of these secondary characters after their paths diverge from that of the main character.

I do recommend this book for readers who find dystopian/post-apocalyptic worlds meaningful. For me, while this bleak and often disturbing book held my attention, I can’t help but compare it to other (okay, I’ll say it — better) books with similar themes.

Interested in other post-apocalyptic novels? Here are a few of my favorites:
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (review)
Parable of the Sower by Olivia Butler
Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan (review)
Into the Forest by Jean Hegland
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller (review)

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The details:

Title: The Book of the Unnamed Midwife
Author: Meg Elison
Publisher: Sybaritic Press
Publication date: June 5, 2014
Length: 190 pages
Genre: Dystopian/post-apocalyptic
Source: Library

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Book Review: The Shade of the Moon

Book Review: The Shade of the Moon by Susan Beth Pfeffer

The Shade of the Moon (The Last Survivors, #4)

The Shade of the Moon is a continuation of Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Last Survivors series, which began with Life As We Knew It, The Dead and the Gone, and This World We Live In.

In the first three books in the series, the Evans family is the primary focus as they live through a horrific global disaster. When an asteroid strikes the moon and knocks it closer to Earth, “life as we knew it” comes to an end, as the changed gravitational forces lead to tsunamis, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions — which in turn lead to an ash layer blocking the sun and causing world-wide winter. Agriculture fails, civilization begins to fall apart, and day-to-day survival is constantly a struggle.

The Shade of the Moon picks up four years after the original asteroid strike, and three years after the end of the original trilogy of books. The first three books revolved around teen daughter Miranda; in The Shade of the Moon, Miranda is a background character as the focus is now on her younger brother Jon. Jon was always the baby of the family, but as the story opens, he is now 17 years old, living in an enclave of the privileged — people deemed so important to the future of mankind that they live in guarded communities with access to food, clean air, nice homes, and health care. The not-so-fortunate live outside the enclave but work as laborers — although the “clavers” refer to the laborer population as “grubs”, which gives you a pretty good idea of the esteem in which they hold them.

Jon is a “claver” because he is a “slip” — through a connection, he was able to get a pass to live in the enclave, even though he doesn’t come from an important family or have the status of true clavers. Because he’s a slip, he has to constantly be on guard not to mess up, not to go against the grain. Protesting the treatment of grubs, especially as a slip, is a sure way to get himself, and probably his loved ones too, thrown out of the enclave and sent to the mines, or worse.

My question as I began reading The Shade of the Moon was: When did my disaster book turn into a dystopian novel?? This was not exactly what I’d expected, and not really what I was looking for. What I found so compelling in the first three books was the story of a family’s struggle for survival. It was quite a human story, with parents sacrificing for their children, children forced to grow up too quickly, people coming together in adversity and wondering whether a future would exist for any of them.

In The Shade of the Moon, life has moved on, but the survivors now live in a caste-based society in which human life has little or no value, at least if the humans in question are grubs. Claver boys are encouraged to go raise hell in the grubber town — and it’s clear that their version of fun involves random beatings, arson, and even rape. Clavers debate whether the grubs should have a clinic in their town — why waste resources on them? The grubs may have had lives of note before (Jon’s housekeeper is a former professor of philosophy), but that doesn’t matter. Clavers have domestics to manage their households, and domestics can be beaten, starved, and mistreated in myriad ways, so long as their productivity isn’t compromised.

In reading the Last Survivors books, I accepted the premise even if I wasn’t sure whether the science of the global disaster was at all realistic. In The Shade of the Moon, it’s not the science, but the sociology, that has me puzzled. I’ve certainly read plenty of books set in dystopian societies; that’s not the problem. The issue for me in The Shade of the Moon is how quickly this new dystopia has become the norm. It’s only been four years since the initial disaster, and less than that since the enclaves were set up and developed. Frankly, that just doesn’t seem like enough time for such a dramatic change in beliefs and attitudes to have become so strongly internalized by the people in this world. The members of the enclave don’t just enforce the caste system as a means of self-preservation — they truly believe that “grubs” are less, are not fully human, and are not worthy of adequate food or even a decent burial. Ultimately, I didn’t buy it, and my inability to suspend my disbelief was a constant distraction from the story itself.

That said, The Shade of the Moon is fast-paced, and once I got past the early chapters, it was compelling enough to make me keep going and to want to know how it would all turn out. Author Susan Beth Pfeffer doesn’t pull any punches, and she certainly isn’t kind to the characters we come to care about. The members of the extended Evans family are all wonderful and rich characters, but that doesn’t protect them from the very bad things that come their way in this book. I understand that young adult fiction needs a teen lead character, but Jon is less interesting to me than the rest of his family — and after spending the previous books with Miranda, I missed her throughout The Shade of the Moon, in which she’s older and therefore only relevant to the story as she relates to Jon and his struggles. The Shade of the Moon is also yet another YA book that features an “insta-love” relationship, and I just didn’t buy that either.

If you’ve read the first three books, should you read The Shade of the Moon? Mixed feelings on this question. This new book isn’t so much a continuation of the previous story as a new direction entirely. You’re not necessarily missing out if you don’t continue — but if dystopian settings appeal to you, then you might want to give The Shade of the Moon a try.

In fact, The Shade of the Moon may even work (possibly better) as a stand-alone. Once you understand the backstory, it can be read as a novel of a dystopian world, and while the family connections may not be as clear or powerful, the plot itself works along the lines of all the other “dystopians” in the market — a cruel, divided society with harsh rules, a courageous young person or two willing to risk their own safety in order to make a stand, and hey, even a love story!

It was unclear to me at the end whether there will be more books in the series, although I suspect that there will be. I suppose I’d like to know what happens to the characters and whether their lives improve, but I’m not sure that I’d feel all that compelled to continue. I’d recommend The Shade of the Moon for those who particularly enjoy the dystopian society genre — but if “dystopians” aren’t your thing, I’d say this one is not a must-read.

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The details:

Title: The Shade of the Moon
Author: Susan Beth Pfeffer
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
Publication date: August 13, 2013
Source: Review copy courtesy of Edelweiss, in exchange for my honest review.