The Wild Dead (Bannerless Saga) by Carrie Vaughn

Rating: 8.0 (out of 10)

The Coast Road is a post-dystopian meritocracy where groups of people form households, and each household must be issued a “banner” in order to have a child. Earning a banner is no easy task: the household must prove itself to be both productive and sustainable in the long term. At the start of The Wild Dead, Investigators Enid and Teeg are at the Estuary – a town far on the outskirts of the Coast Road where few banners are earned – to mediate a simple civil dispute, when a body washes up on the banks of the river. The young woman’s throat had been cut, making murder the only probable cause.
Murder is rare on the Coast Road, though Enid is one of the few Investigators to have solved one. The dead woman did not belong to any of the households in the Estuary, and at first the locals refuse to admit they even know who she is. Eventually, Enid discovers the young woman is from a group of wild folk who live upriver, who sometimes come to the Estuary to trade with Last House. Last House is something of a disgraced household, unable to earn a banner because they took a woman named Neeve under their roof, who was convicted of tampering with her birth control implant as a teenager. It becomes clear to Enid that Last House is hiding something, but does that mean they are responsible for the girl’s murder?
The Wild Dead is Vaughn’s standalone sequel to last year’s Bannerless, and like that novel, the murder mystery in The Wild Dead is not its best feature. That’s a strange thing to say about a book I enjoyed as much as this one, but it’s true – the plot works well enough, but its one of those mysteries where the reader keeps figuring out where the clues lead well before the characters in the book catch up. This can be a little frustrating, and for a lot of readers it sours the experience. Vaughn’s strengths as a writer lie in her ability to guide readers through an immersive experience. These are quest novels: In Bannerless, we followed Enid’s transition from impetuous youth to purposeful civil servant, and in The Wild Dead Enid must journey far outside the relative safety of the Coast Road and into the harsh wilds where the outsiders dwell, to learn the truth about Neeve and the dead girl whose murder she can’t even establish a clear motive for.
Enid is a true believer in the rule of law but is also deeply concerned with fairness and empathy. Teeg, her newly assigned partner, prefers to stick the blame on the most likely culprit and move on. The Wild Dead offers a more acute illustration of the tenuous social contract that maintains order on the Coast Road. Absent the willingness of people like Enid to look past initial prejudices, and to put her own health and safety at risk to unmask the truth, how stable can the loose governing authority of the Coast Road be? All it takes is one Teeg to administer inequitable rulings or abuse his authority for the sake of convenience or personal gain, for resentments among the citizenry to gather and stir.
The Wild Dead gets readers invested in the world it represents: the landscape, the culture, the concerns and struggles of the people who inhabit it. I eagerly anticipate the next volume in the series.

Bannerless by Carrie Vaughn

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.