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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Shelf Control #123: American Pacifica by Anna North

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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! 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: 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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Book Review: Good Morning, Midnight

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Augustine, a brilliant, aging astronomer, is consumed by the stars. For years he has lived in remote outposts, studying the sky for evidence of how the universe began. At his latest posting, in a research center in the Arctic, news of a catastrophic event arrives. The scientists are forced to evacuate, but Augustine stubbornly refuses to abandon his work. Shortly after the others have gone, Augustine discovers a mysterious child, Iris, and realizes the airwaves have gone silent. They are alone.

At the same time, Mission Specialist Sullivan is aboard the Aether on its return flight from Jupiter. The astronauts are the first human beings to delve this deep into space, and Sully has made peace with the sacrifices required of her: a daughter left behind, a marriage ended. So far the journey has been a success, but when Mission Control falls inexplicably silent, Sully and her crew mates are forced to wonder if they will ever get home.

As Augustine and Sully each face an uncertain future against forbidding yet beautiful landscapes, their stories gradually intertwine in a profound and unexpected conclusion. In crystalline prose, Good Morning, Midnight poses the most important questions: What endures at the end of the world? How do we make sense of our lives?

Good Morning, Midnight is a melancholy, introspective novel, with moments of great beauty. And yet, it doesn’t quite succeed — or at least, not for me.

The set-up is interesting: An older man who chooses to remain in his isolated Arctic environment when all others evacuate, knowing that he may not have another opportunity to leave, and the crew of a space mission returning to their home planet with no idea of what awaits them. The book deals with the extremes of loneliness: What does it mean to be the last humans? How does existing have meaning when there likely is no possibility of a future? What does it mean to live without connection to others?

While the themes are interesting, the plot is a bit thin. This is a book about what happens within the souls of people in extreme situations; it’s not a typical post-apocalyptic adventure story. And yet, setting up a plot like this without offering explanation left me feeling very frustrated. Granted, the characters themselves did not get any answers, but I wanted to at least know the cause.

As the astronauts approach Earth orbit, they observe that the planet looks normal — no obliterating dust clouds, no evidence of massive destruction — and yet there’s the eerie fact that the night side of the globe has none of the twinkling lights they’d expect to see. The planet has gone dark, and no one responds to their attempts at communication. The mysterious catastrophe is not the point of the story, but rather what’s left for those who remain, but I simply couldn’t be satisfied without knowing more.

An additional negative for me is the revelation of a connection at the end of the book that’s entirely too coincidental for my taste. It makes the parallel storylines a bit too neat, and is both unnecessary and unbelievable.

Good Morning, Midnight didn’t fully engage my interest, and there are some serious flaws in the approach to the story. I was much more engaged by the idea of the story and how it might go than by the actual execution. Perhaps I expected more science fiction based on the description, and felt let down to discover that the sci-fi set-up is merely a frame for a story that’s very much a look at people’s interiors.

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The details:

Title: Good Morning, Midnight
Author: Lily Brooks-Dalton
Publisher: Random House
Publication date: August 9, 2016
Length: 272 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Library

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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 Dead Lands

Dead LandsIf man-sized, blood-sucking albino bats freak you out, The Dead Lands might not be the best book for you.

If you can handle the squickiness and enjoy alternate histories and post-apocalyptic societies, read on!

In The Dead Lands, the action begins in the Sanctuary, formerly known as St. Louis, Missouri, approximately 150 years after a global flu pandemic and subsequent nuclear warhead detonations and reactor meltdowns destroy the world as we know it. The Sanctuary is a parched, cramped little insular world, surrounded by a massive wall that keeps all the bad out — and keeps its residents in. Water is scarce and growing scarcer. Residents of the Sanctuary are convinced that they’re it, all that’s left of humanity in this miserable world. It’s been at least 60 years since an outsider has shown up seeking entry. Meanwhile:

The wall is a constant in Simon’s life, everywhere he looks, impossible to miss. Yet it is as common as dust, as heat, as the sun’s blazing path across the sky, and it is easy to go days, weeks, without noticing it. It is of uneven height but at its tallest point reaches a hundred feet from the ground. In some places it is made from plaster and mortared stone, and in others, heaps of metal, the many-colored cars of another time, crushed and welded together into massive bricks that bleed rust when it rains.

The Sanctuary is ruled with an iron fist by the mayor, an autocratic dictator who suffers no dissent and who has instituted a policy of harsh punishment, including a brutally disgusting death penalty, for anyone who dares to criticize the regime, even by so much as a drunken comment in a bar among friends.

The sole spot of peace and possible civility in this harsh settlement is in the museum, run by Lewis Meriwether, a reclusive, odd, studious man who is both feared and respected by the residents of the Sanctuary. People flock to the museum to bask in the wonders of bygone worlds, despite the curator’s strangeness.

Life in the Sanctuary is disrupted when a rider appears from out of the dust — a girl on horseback, with all black eyes, bearing a message and begging to be heard. She is shot before she can deliver the message and is immediately captured and sentenced to death — but the message gets through all the same. She brings word of another civilization, on the Oregon coast, where there is rain and agriculture and a thriving community. The mayor wants nothing of this and tries to keep it secret, but Meriwether and a guard named Mina Clark agree to join the messenger, Gawea, and together with a few others, carry out a desperate escape from their walled city.

Do the names ring a bell? Lewis and Clark? Gawea… as in Sacagawea? The Dead Lands reimagines the Lewis & Clark expedition in this harsh, dead world, as our band of escapees flees through the barren, dry areas outside of the Sanctuary, following the dried-up bed of the Missouri River in search of water, shelter, and salvation. Along the way, they face untold horrors and dangers. Due to the high post-disaster radiation levels, all sorts of horrible mutations have taken place, so that the albino bats are but one nasty specimen that wants to eat, kill, or maim the travelers. Hazardous landscapes pose endless threats, as the oil fields continue to burn, creating micro nuclear winters, and the few signs of life they do see come with new and strange risks. And as the group travels onward, we see that animals and vegetation aren’t the only forms of life that have evolved in strange ways due to radiation. Lewis exhibits weird, almost magical telekinetic abilities, and Gawea has powers of her own.

The imagery throughout The Dead Lands is horror-novel worthy. (Did I mention the albino bats already?) It’s bleak, dark, and dismal. Very bad things happen. Nightmarish creatures arrive out of nowhere. As soon as one threat is dealt with, another appears to take its place. And as you might expect, people turn out to be the biggest threat of all. Because, of course, a utopian agrarian society in the Pacific Northwest is probably too good to be true, right? The other humans out there are vicious in their own way, and as happens so often in this type of book, those who can seize power do, and everyone else is forced into one form of servitude or another.

There are some very interesting concepts, including the reestablishment of city-states as small empires. The suffering of the people, in the Sanctuary as well as elsewhere, makes you marvel that anyone bothers to survive at all, given how horrible it all is. The people with power are awful and self-aggrandizing and unbelievably decadent, reminding me of the worst of the Roman emperors, perhaps, indulging in wasteful, steamy hot baths while the common folks quench their thirst via animal blood, sucking rocks, and worse.

Setting the story in the future, yet including characters from American history, makes everything feel very circular. Is slavery inevitable in human societies? Is the impulse for the strong to dehumanize the weak somehow hardwired into our DNA? In The Dead Lands, it certainly seems that way. Does a totalitarian society encourage those with sadistic tendencies to rise to power? If the Sheriff of the Sanctuary is any indication, that would be a yes. Society itself has reverted to a bygone time, thanks to the end of technology and industry:

Apothecaries, tinkers, blacksmiths, seers. Old words, old ways. So much about the world has reverted, so that it is not so much the future people once imagined, but a history that already happened, this time like a time long ago.

The descriptions of the ravaged world are horrible yet evocative:

The remains of the St. Louis Arch, collapsed in the middle, appear like a ragged set of mandibles rising out of the earth.

Even a passionate interlude between two illicit lovers is presented as disturbing… and pretty gross:

What they are doing is kissing, though it looks much like eating. Their mouths opening and closing hungrily, their teeth biting down on lips, cheeks. Then they pull apart, their faces are a splotchy red and he is bleeding from the corner of his mouth.

The writing in The Dead Lands is wildly disturbing and imaginative. While the explorers push forward, even when it seems pointless and impossible, it’s not from a true sense of hope, but rather because there simply is no alternative but to keep going.

Not so long ago Lewis believed in the end of the rainbow. A shire. An emerald city. Elysian fields. What his childhood storybooks promised. He believed, back when they first set out from the Sanctuary, that something arcadian awaited them. Not anymore. Now now. Not when he sees the bone-riddled ruins of Bozeman. It is not only the landscape that disappoints. It is humankind. Inside and outside the wall, humans remain the same, capable of wonderful things, yes, but more often excelling in ruin.

The ending felt a little abrupt and puzzling to me, and didn’t quite pull together all of the many story threads in this big, complicated book. Ultimately, I’m not sure what it all meant, and the open-ended nature of the ending makes me wonder if a sequel is in the works.

Do I recommend The Dead Lands? Yes, but only for those with a strong stomach and a willingness to read a book that is terribly unpleasant and often horrific. It’s disturbing and sometimes icky, and I’d be scared to death to read this on a camping trip with only a campfire to ward off all the nightmares waiting in the dark. The world of The Dead Lands is as awful as the title promises, so don’t expect moments of grace or redemption along the way. Most of all, don’t get too attached to any of the characters. Bad things happen. To lots of people.

Have I scared you away from this book yet? I’m glad I read it, really, I am! But it’s heavy and morbid, and you should know that before you start. As for me, I think I’ll track down a copy of the author’s previous novel, Red Moon, which also sounds quite disturbing. (I think I’d better read some books about kitties and unicorns first.)

Side note: I did find some of the similarities to Station Eleven a bit odd — flu pandemic, nuclear meltdowns, scavenging abandoned houses for supplies, even a TV set up like a diorama. I suppose it’s not too far-fetched — seen one crumbling civilization, seen ’em all — but a few of these elements really jumped out at me, having read Station Eleven fairly recently. Just saying.

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The details:

Title: The Dead Lands
Author: Benjamin Percy
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication date: May 14, 2015
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Adult fiction/post-apocalyptic/horror
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley