Rambling On

Anthony R. Cardno's Fiction and Commentary

TITLE: Bannerless

AUTHOR: Carrie Vaughn

352 pages, John Joseph Adams books, ISBN 9780544947306

Publication Date: July 11, 2017 (I received an uncorrected proof ARC in exchange for an honest review)

 

DESCRIPTION: (from the back cover): 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.

 

MY RATING: Five out of five stars

 

MY THOUGHTS: I first encountered the post-apocalyptic world Carrie Vaughn reveals to us in such great detail in her new novel Bannerless in a short story of the same title back in 2015. That story, which introduced not only the world of the Coast Road communities but also lead character Enid, appeared in the anthology The End Has Come, part of John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey’s Apocalypse Triptych. Readers interested in seeing an older, more experienced Enid should seek out that anthology, or head over to Wired.com to read the story for free. You don’t need to have read the original story to understand Enid or the world she lives in. This novel shows us a younger Enid, discovering who she is and how she’s going to survive as an Investigator.

Let’s talk about the world-building first.

In this not-too-terribly-distant future, civilization as we know now it has collapsed due not to a single Extinction Level Event but a combination of “smaller” catastrophic events that build on each other the way a solid combination punch does in professional boxing: climate change combined with disease combined with overpopulation stagger humanity’s ability to cope and recover. But humanity never goes completely down for the count, and a generation or so later we have the Coast Road society: tied to the earth, supremely aware of how susceptible they are to drastic weather, depletion of natural resources, and the possibility of over-population. As a whole, at least in this particular region, humanity is hanging in there and still fighting. But as we see multiple times in this novel: those who don’t learn the lessons of the past are doomed to repeat them. Life in this near future is not easy, despite the content home lives of most of the characters. Fishing, hunting, harvesting, trading … all come with the threat of injury or death attached, and the world no longer has the medical-pharmaceutical-surgical capabilities it once did. Vaughn drives this home repeatedly: the world post-apocalypse will be lacking much of currently keeps people alive. The only difference between the world of Bannerless and, say, the medieval or Renaissance world is whether people know what they don’t have – and the characters in Bannerless are painfully aware (and frequently reminded) of what’s been lost.  That’s part of what I loved about the short story and the novel: this world is not so far in the future that our own “modern” world has been relegated to myth, but there are clear indications it is headed into that territory. This is important to the way resources, including the ability to have children, are allocated.  This future society’s approach to population control – enforced birth control until a household earns a banner and thus the right to conceive and raise a child – is likely to be the subject of many reviews of the book. Is the system Vaughn posits a fair one? Probably not, but then again many of our current laws aren’t either. Does it make sense in the context of the world Vaughn has built? Absolutely. I can easily imagine that fear of a return to overpopulation and the depletion of natural resources and increased diseases caused by it would lead to some extremes. But the author also makes it clear: birth control is being used to control population growth rather than some Puritanical “abstention from sex except when trying to procreate” rules. Sex in the world of Bannerless is natural and expected and exists in all its wide varieties and combinations of partners. No one is shamed or cast out because of it.

We explore this fascinating world and the selfless and selfish characters who inhabit it, through the eyes of Enid. Vaughn has structured the book so that alternating chapters show us Enid in her present, as a beginning Investigator encountering her first big complicated case, as well as Enid in her past, as a curious young woman experiencing Coast Road society outside of her home town. Of course, the past is prologue to the present; flashback details bleed over into the present the way they should when handled in a format like this. We the readers are essentially experiencing two mysteries at once: the possible murder of a loner in the present, and the question of how Enid became an investigator in the past.

In the past, Enid falls heavily in love with a traveling musician named Dak and decides to leave Haven to experience the world with him. This Enid is a bit more head-strong, a bit less likely to take stock of a situation, a bit more likely to let her emotions lead her actions. And Dak enables this behavior with his charm and wit. These chapters are full of details that reveal not all Coast Road towns or homesteads are the same, showing Enid that not everyone is as comfortable (if that word can be used in this world) as her town of Haven is. Vaughn also drops hints as to what lies beyond the Coast Road, and it is my fervent hope that these distances will be explored more deeply in future installments because the small views we got were tantalizing. In these chapters, the characters Enid encounters (such as Petula house-head Fisher, her son Stev, and their town-mate Xander) help expand, or expound upon, the world-building.

In the present, Enid journeys with fellow Investigator, and childhood friend, Tomas, to the town of Pasadan. They’re answering a summons to investigate a mysterious death, but it quickly becomes obvious that internal town politics and failure to learn the lessons of the past are going to complicate what should be a fairly straightforward case. In these chapters, the world-building becomes less centered and more subtle as the author introduces the characters involved in, and spools out the details of, a fair-play, multi-suspect murder mystery. And it is very “fair play,” the kind of mystery, sans post-apocalyptic setting, I can imagine Sherlock Holmes or Hamish Macbeth solving. If the “possible suspects” are bit more archetypal (the battling town council members Philos and Ariana; the possible young lovers Miran and Kirk; even the disliked outcast victim Sero) and a bit less nuanced than the characters of the flashbacks, it can be accepted as part of the genre Vaughn is importing. They each do their job in providing clues and red herrings for the mystery as well as propelling Enid’s character arc. By the end of the novel, we can see shades of the older Enid of the short story.

What ties the alternating chapters together is the consistencies in Enid’s character. At both ages, she is willful and head-strong, apt to let emotions lead her. If the older Enid is more able to tamp anger down in service to the greater good, the younger Enid’s impetuousness serves that greater good almost as effectively. And at any age, Enid is a great listener and avid learner, which draws the reader into the world around her. She’s a character I’m interested in spending a lot more time with.

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Don DeLillo’s MAO II

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Don Delillo is one of those writers I feel like I should have read long before now. Somehow, he did not come up in any of my Lit courses in college, and I have not sought him out since then. Two years ago the owner of my local independent bookstore recommended MAO II.  Dave’s recommendations have always been spot-on before and as is my habit when recommendations are made while I’m in a bookstore, I immediately purchased the book, put it on a shelf at home, and promptly forgot about it.   But lately I’ve been on a “clean out the bookshelves” binge, and this was one of the books I decided I wanted to read before trading in at the used bookstore.

Plot-wise, the back cover tells us MAO II is the story of reclusive author Bill Gray who, stuck for years now on a failed novel, is inspired to leave his reclusive life and become involved in a group’s attempts to get a French poet released from hostage captivity in Beirut.  Bill’s sudden change in attitude is brought on by an encounter with a world-renowned photographer, and his actions leave his obsessive-compulsive assistant Scott and Scott’s girlfriend Karen at a loss for what to do while waiting for Bill’s return to what they consider normalcy.

That’s the plot, but the book is “about” something larger. It took me a few days after reading the book to figure out exactly what that larger thing is. Ultimately, I think, the book is about the Cult of Personality. DeLillo litters the book with references to Andy Warhol, to Chairman Mao, to the Ayatollah Khomeini. Anyone who fails to draw at least a surface connection between Bill Gray and J.D. Salinger just isn’t paying attention. Scott is concerned that Bill’s reputation and reprint rights are based on what people think he is up to in his seclusion, and that if he publishes this latest novel (failed or not, we never really get to see the contents) people will no longer be intrigued. The French poet is held hostage by a Communist terrorist building a following in Beirut, whose followers give up their own identities to be a part of his. Even the photographer, Brita, builds her career around a sort of cult: she travels the world photographing writers almost exclusively.

The opening section of the book, which focuses on Karen and takes place at the Mass Wedding lead by the Rev. Moon at Yankees Stadium, almost lost me. DeLillo bounces between at least three (that I could count) distinct points of view, sometimes in mid-paragraph, and the feeling I had by the end of the section was that this work was going to be too pretentious, too arty for me. Had the rest of the book continued in that vein, I might not have been able to finish it.  Happily (for me), the remainder of the book is written a bit more traditionally. Actually, it becomes a bit heavy on the dialogue side for a while — characters jumping on various soap-boxes and rambling, dissembling, reminiscing, pontificating. At first, the penchant for characters to spout non-sequiturs bothered me, but ultimately that’s what real conversations are like, aren’t they?  So DeLillo does capture that aspect of real life, even if some of his diatribes go on a bit long. He also does a nice job of allowing we, the readers, to see where all of the characters ultimately end up even if the characters themselves have lost track of each other.

I can’t say that MAO II has inspired me to rush out and start reading everything Don DeLillo has ever written, but I am glad I made the effort to read the book.

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Green by Jay Lake, isbn 9780765321855, 368 pages, Tor, $26.95

I’ve read several of Jay Lake’s short stories. What I usually like about his work is how the sense of place and the sense of character are equally important, how neither aspect overwhelms the other, and how both combine to move the plot forward.  Green is the first of Lake’s novels that I’ve read, and I’m glad I chose it to start off with because it has the exact same qualities I’ve enjoyed in his short fiction.

Green is the story of a girl taken from her home at an early age and raised through her early teens in The Pomegranate Court, where she is trained to be a Great Lady. If she succeeds in her training, she’ll become a favored toy of the Duke of Copper Downs; if she fails, she’ll be sold off to some outlying lord’s manor to be used however that lord sees fit. Throughout her education, she has no real name, simply being called “Girl,” and no real friends amongst her teachers except for Federo, the man who took her from her home, and The Dancing Mistress, a mysterious member of a feline race who teaches Girl more than just dancing. It seems as though Federo and the Dancing Mistress are preparing her for something, but can she trust them?  She is eventually given the name Emerald in the court, but chooses to call herself Green.

There is far more to the story than that, of course, but I prefer to keep my reviews as spoiler-free as possible.

I described Green, when I was about halfway through the book, to a friend by saying it was “languid, but not slow.” One of the things that amazes me about the book is that it covers, in 368 pages, three distinct phases of Green’s life (in fact, several times I found myself thinking that in the hands of another high fantasy author, each section of this book would have been a 400-500 page book of its own). So the pace of the book cannot be said to be “slow.” And yet, Green’s voice as she narrates is melancholic, languid, pining for what she thinks she has lost. Lake takes the old “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence” trope and really drives home, through Green, the fact that we never really understand what life is like for others when the only lens we have to view it through is that of our own experiences. Green repeatedly finds herself confronted with how her life might have been different, and each time it happens there is the potential for her to change her thoughts — and yet, like most normal people, she retains her anger and her wish for something different despite all evidence that the life she was handed is in some ways better than the life she would have left had Federo never found her.  Of course, it’s not that simple, and I think in the end the best we can say is that Green’s life would have been brutal and dangerous either way.

So the book may feel languid, thanks to Green’s voice, but it is not at all slow. Events happen, and in the nature of the world, we don’t always know the outcome because we’re getting the story from Green’s point of view completely and she is not a narrator who tells the story out of order. If she were, that great languid quality of her voice would be lost. Because she is a child of two societies (continents? they are separated by a vast sea), it is inevitable that Green will journey back to the land of her birth, just as it is inevitable she will return to Copper Downs to finish what was started. The reader can sense this inevitability, but Green herself drops very few hints at it.  When Green leaves for Kalimpura, I did have a momentary thought of “that’s it? Lake is just leaving this whole plot thread hanging to go off in search of a completely different story?” That momentary thought is to Lake’s credit. It shows that I was caught up, perhaps more than I thought at the time, in what Federo and the Dancing Mistress were really up to with Green. It shows that a jarring, but perfectly logical, change of scene and storyline, was exactly what the book needed, and more importantly it was exactly what Green needed.  It proves, as I said earlier, that events happen and sometimes we are not privy to the outcome. Especially in the type of world in which Green lives. There is no internet, no cell phone service, not even a magical approximation of those things. So when Green is out of touch with what is going on in Copper Downs, so are we. Even when she hints, from whenever in her life she is narrating this, that there were events going on that she had no awareness of … she still doesn’t tell us what those events were. She perfectly replicates the insular life she lead.

I feel a bit like I’m rambling. I haven’t addressed the other characters. It is hard, in a first-person narrated tale, for the reader to get a sense of other characters’ inner lives except through the viewpoint of the narrator. Still, perhaps because of Green’s own fascination, I find myself hoping that sooner or later Lake will write a story from The Dancing Mistress’ point of view. Or from Federo’s, or Septio’s, or any of the Lily Blades we meet in the course of the book. They all strike me as interesting characters, and I know it’s not unheard of for Jay Lake to write novellas and shorts that add depth to the worlds he’s created.

I also haven’t addressed that sense of place. There are two major locations for this book: the city of Copper Downs, where Green is effectively raised, and the city of Kalimpura, where she furthers her education.  Lake does a great job of showing us the differences in the societies Green inhabits by describing the differences in the cities she encounters. Copper Downs feels very European, Kalimpura very Asiatic. Those are gross simplifications, but they’ll do for the review. Green’s two societies don’t war with each other — they trade (although even that is implied to be limited) and otherwise co-exist across a vast sea. But they are almost ideologically at odds with each other simply in the way they are structured. And that, of course, feeds into the primary problem for our main character, as she tries to figure out who she really is, and who she wants to be.

I highly recommend Green as an example of what High Fantasy can be. It doesn’t all have to be over-written and bloated. It doesn’t all have to feature a cast of thousands that are difficult to keep track of.  In Green, Jay Lake gives us an intriguing fantasy world with political and social depth and a main character worth following through multiple adventures.  He also gives us a book that feels complete in and of itself. I know he’s already at work on at least one sequel, but you can read Green and feel like you’ve gotten a full story with nothing lingering forcing you to read a second or third book.

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Dark and Stormy Knights

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Thanks to a migraine headache, I’m posting this review a day later than I’d intended to, but here it is:

Dark and Stormy Knights edited by P.N. Elrod, isbn 9780312598341, 357 pages, St. Martin’s Griffin, $14.99

This is the fourth P.N. Elrod-edited urban fantasy anthology I’ve picked up. Honestly, the deciding factor to purchase each lay in the fact that each includes a story / novella of The Dresden Files written by Jim Butcher. I also have to be honest and say I haven’t really finished any of the other anthologies. Over time, I’ve picked out a story or two to try out but have never really had the urge to read the anthologies cover to cover. I didn’t have that urge with this anthology at first, either, but I kept finding first lines / first paragraphs that interested me, and after the third time that happened I decided I needed to just read the whole thing.

I’m glad I did. The contents of any anthology can be described as “hit or miss,” but I can say this collection actually had more hits than misses for me.  According to the back cover text, the characters in these stories are “the shadow defenders of humanity — modern-day knights committing the darkest of deeds for all the right reasons.” Most of the main characters fit that description well, both in the stories that are part of an already existing larger fictional world and the stories that introduce us to new settings.

As I’ve already reviewed each story individually on the [info]365shortstories community at Livejournal, I won’t retread those thoughts here in any detail.  Of the nine stories in this collection, five are definitely part of existing fictional worlds: Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels books, Carrie Vaughn’s “Kitty” books, Vicki Pettersson’s “Sings of the Zodiac” series, and editor P.N. Elrod’s Jack Fleming mysteries.  I was already very familiar with the Dresden books and have a decent familiarity with the Fleming stories; the other three were new to me.  Of those, I thought Ilona Andrews and Carrie Vaughn did the best at making a new reader feel comfortable. Pettersson’s story was interesting (especially in terms of the question “what makes us human?”) but I felt like I was being penalized for not having read the novels — too much of Pettersson’s story seemed to rely on knowing exactly where in the novel series the characters were, while Andrews and Vaughn gave me enough world and character background to enjoy the story as a stand-alone piece.  As for the two worlds with which I was already familiar, I’m probably not in a good position to judge whether the Dresden story (which does not feature Harry Dresden himself, but rather gangster “Gentleman” John Marcone) is easily accessible without knowledge of the novels. I think it is, but readers new to Dresden can judge better than I.  The Fleming story, as with the others I’ve read, is a decent little mystery, serviceable towards the anthology’s theme, and I think ultimately accessible to new readers; Elrod gives you everything you need to know about Jack to get you through the story.

The remaining four stories in the anthology appear to be truly stand-alone tales.  Shannon K. Butcher’s “The Beacon” reads like an introduction to a series. I have no idea if she plans to continue with the Ryder Ward character, but I think she certainly could and could build up an interesting world around him. Rachel Caine is always a favorite of mine in these anthologies, and this time she gives a tale of dragon-hunting in the modern day that is both funny and heart-breaking. The Lilith Saintcrow story also felt like it might be an introduction to a new series (or perhaps it is part of something that already exists — it didn’t seem so from the author’s notes, though). And the Diedre Knight story felt so complete that I can’t imagine where she would go if it was part of a series.

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