Rating: 7.2 (out of 10)
Bannerless is a post-apocalyptic murder mystery that works well as a post-apocalypse, somewhat less so as a murder mystery. Carrie Vaughn’s strengths as a writer – her powerful visuals, compelling characters, and intricate worldbuilding – serve this novel well.
Set in a future “after the Fall”, Vaughn imagines this new world as a network of communities that follow strict guidelines to ensure that scant resources aren’t overtaxed. Population control is the most essential feature of this world. Women are fitted with birth control implants to curtail unsanctioned pregnancies, and households are only allowed to bear children once they earn a “banner” by proving their ability to be highly productive (and law abiding) members of society. As one might expect, these banners are a great source of pride for the households that obtain them, but are also a source of resentment and disaffection for the bannerless.
Enid is an investigator whose jurisdiction includes all manner of crimes and violations, and the main plot of the novel involves her and her partner Tomas trying to determine if a grisly death in the town of Pasadan was an accident or murder. This story alternates with flashback chapters of Enid as a young woman, living an itinerant lifestyle with her musician lover Dak. In the “present day” storyline, Enid becomes emotionally conflicted when the long estranged Dak shows up as a member of the Pasadan community.
I preferred the flashback chapters of the novel, which explored in detail the way the communities function in this setting, and how difficult it is to function without one. You know how it’s going to end, by design, but the climax is thrilling and Enid’s final choice is both believable and heart-wrenching. The mystery story is a bit thin – by the end it feels like a short story padded out to novel length. The conclusion to the “whodunnit” is easy to predict halfway through, though the ending still manages to be emotionally satisfying and fits well into Vaughn’s theme of communities succeeding, or failing, together.
A solid book, despite its flaws.