Take A Peek Book Review: Golden State by Ben H. Winters

“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. My newest “take a peek” book:

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

A shocking vision of our future that is one part Minority Report and one part Chinatown.

Lazlo Ratesic is 54, a 19-year veteran of the Speculative Service, from a family of law enforcement and in a strange alternate society that values law and truth above all else. This is how Laz must, by law, introduce himself, lest he fail to disclose his true purpose or nature, and by doing so, be guilty of a lie.

Laz is a resident of The Golden State, a nation resembling California, where like-minded Americans retreated after the erosion of truth and the spread of lies made public life, and governance, increasingly impossible. There, surrounded by the high walls of compulsory truth-telling, knowingly contradicting the truth–the Objectively So–is the greatest possible crime. Stopping those crimes, punishing them, is Laz’s job. In its service, he is one of the few individuals permitted to harbor untruths–to “speculate” on what might have happened in the commission of a crime.

But the Golden State is far less a paradise than its name might suggest. To monitor, verify, and enforce the Objectively So requires a veritable panopticon of surveillance, recording, and record-keeping. And when those in control of the truth twist it for nefarious means, the Speculators may be the only ones with the power to fight back.

My Thoughts:

Golden State is a weird mind-f*ck of a novel, and that’s what makes it so wonderful. In a society where adherence to the Objectively So is the primary goal, the crime of telling a lie can lead to lengthy imprisonment or even exile, a fate assumed to be equivalent to death. Law enforcement agents like Lazlo can feel when a lie has been told, and their ability to sense anomalies leads them in pursuit of those who attempt to subvert the State with their untruths. People greet each other on the street by stating absolute facts (“A cow has four stomachs.” “A person has one.”), and the ringing of clock bells leads to streams of statements about the time, hour after hour.

I loved the explanations for the rules and moral certainties of the Golden State, which we’re led to believe has been in existence for several generations already as of the start of this story:

You go back far enough in history, ancient history, and you find a time when people were never taught to grow out of it, when every adult lied all the time, when people lied for no reason or for the most selfish possible reasons, for political effect or personal gain. They lied and they didn’t just lie; they built around themselves whole carapaces of lies. They built realities and sheltered inside them. This is how it was, this is how it is known to have been, and all the details of that old dead world are known to us in our bones but hidden from view, true and permanent but not accessible, not part of our vernacular.

It was this world but it was another world and it’s gone. We are what’s left. The calamity of the past is not true, because it is unknown. There could only be hypotheses, and hypotheses are not the truth. So we leave it blank. Nothing happened. Something happened. It is gone.

Golden State is a book that I’ll need to revisit, probably a few times. The writing is spot-on, conveying the strange realities of its world from an insider’s perspective, immersing the reader in the weird double-speak of Speculators and Small Infelicities and Acknowledged Experts — it’s strange and alien, yet we inhabit it through the characters for whom it’s all just part of the normal lives they lead.

Reading Golden State is a treat. I wanted to stop to highlight passages practically everywhere — there’s so much clever wordplay and inversion of our understanding of what things mean. It’s a great read, highly recommended. Now I need to get back to the other books on my shelves by this author, because I’m pretty sure I’m going to love them.

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The details:

Title: Golden State
Author: Ben H. Winters
Publisher: Mulholland Books
Publication date: January 22, 2019
Length: 319 pages
Genre: Speculative fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Shelf Control #154: The Salt Line by Holly Goddard Jones

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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A little note for 2019: For the next short while, I think I’ll focus specifically on books I’ve picked up at our library’s fabulous annual sales. With all books $3 or less, it’s so hard to resist! And yet, they pile up, year after year, so it’s a good idea to remind myself that these books are living on my shelves.

Title: The Salt Line
Author: Holly Goddard Jones
Published: 2017
Length: 400 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

In the spirit of Station Eleven and California, award-winning novelist Holly Goddard Jones offers a literary spin on the dystopian genre with this gripping story of survival and humanity about a group of adrenaline junkies who jump -the Salt Line.-

How far will they go for their freedom–once they decide what freedom really means?

In an unspecified future, the United States’ borders have receded behind a salt line–a ring of scorched earth that protects its citizens from deadly disease-carrying ticks. Those within the zone live safe, if limited, lives in a society controlled by a common fear. Few have any reason to venture out of zone, except for the adrenaline junkies who pay a fortune to tour what’s left of nature. Those among the latest expedition include a popstar and his girlfriend, Edie; the tech giant Wes; and Marta; a seemingly simple housewife.

Once out of zone, the group find themselves at the mercy of deadly ticks–and at the center of a murderous plot. They become captives in Ruby City, a community made up of outer-zone survivors determined to protect their hardscrabble existence. As alliances and friendships shift amongst the hostages, Edie, Wes, and Marta must decide how far they are willing to go to get to the right side of the salt line.

How and when I got it:

LIBRARY SALE!

Why I want to read it:

Hey, who isn’t up for a good apocalypse every once in a while? Although, ticks? Shudder. I love survival tales and stories about the breakdown of society and civilization. I don’t think I fully read the synopsis when I picked this book up at the sale (again — TICKS), but I’m willing to give it a try. (Unfortunately, I just saw that two of my Goodreads friends — whose opinions are usually pretty aligned with my own — DNF’d this book, which maybe isn’t the best sign.)

What do you think? Would you read this book?

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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.
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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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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

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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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