Book Review: The Wild Dead, Carrie Vaughn

Book Review: The Wild Dead, Bannerless Saga Book 2, Carrie Vaughn

 

The Wild Dead, Carrie Vaughn

Mystery: The Wild Dead, Bannerless Saga, Book 2, Carrie Vaughn

Like the first book in this series (Bannerless), The Wild Dead is a mystery set in a dystopian future. The people of the Coast Road live by strict rules. Households must live within their means but also contribute to the good of their communities. Quotas cannot be exceeded so that the land is not overworked, but enough must be grown or gathered to share with others. When a household proves they can live within the parameters set and support another person they are given a banner. A banner signifies permission to become pregnant and have a baby. Households that do not have a banner are not allowed to have children, and there is no stigma greater in the Coast Road than trying to have a bannerless child.

 

Enid, the investigator we first met in Bannerless, has been sent to the estuary to mediate a property dispute. A house dating from before “the Fall” is unlikely to survive another storm without significant repairs, and the owner wants his neighbors to help restore the property. Enid and her new partner Teeg have come to check out the property and determine whether the owner’s adamance is warranted. While they are there, though, a body is discovered on the tidal flats. A young woman has been murdered…and soon they realize that the woman is not from the Coast Road at all but rather is from the “wild” people who are not part of their society.

 

These facts do not tell the investigators who killed the woman, but they raise their own set of questions. Do the investigators have an actual responsibility to investigate the murder of someone who is not part of their community? Is the murder of an outsider actually even a crime? How far is Enid willing to go to solve this murder…especially when everyone, including Teeg, thinks she should just walk away and leave it be?

 

Carrie Vaughn has worked hard building the world of the Coast Road, a world that has been shaped dramatically by the collapse of the world we readers know. The Coast Road enjoys some of the remnants of civilization: electricity is sustainably generated, food is grown in moderation, trade occurs up and down the Coast Road. But the cost is high: women receive implants preventing pregnancy upon their first menstruation and those implants can only be removed when a banner is awarded. The Coast Road society is fully sustainable, but far from free. Bannerless children are forcibly removed from their families and given to families who have banners but have not been able to conceive. And the stigma for even trying to conceive a bannerless child continues for a lifetime.

 

The “wild” people live with much more freedom, but they also live on the edge of starvation. No one says who or when they can have children, but they struggle to meet basic needs for those children. The Coast Road chooses security over freedom. The wild people choose freedom over security. When the two societies intersect, both are challenged to evaluate their choices.

 

As a reader who enjoys both science fiction and mysteries, this novel is a delightful cross-genre story. Enid is a dogged investigator who is committed to finding the truth. She is willing to do the difficult work of pursuing the truth outside of her comfort zone, even outside of her society, seeking justice for the dead woman even though she is from another culture. Carrie Vaughn has created a fascinating world in her Bannerless Saga, and The Wild Dead is an outstanding continuation of that saga. I hope there are more to come.

 

The Wild Dead, Carrie Vaughn

 

Book Review: The Wild Dead, Carrie Vaughn

Book Review: Bannerless, Carrie Vaughn

Book Review: Bannerless, Bannerless Saga Book 1, Carrie Vaughn

Bannerlass, Carrie Vaughn

Fiction: Bannerless, Carrie Vaughn

In the dystopian future, being “bannerless” could mean any number of things. Many of them are not good. On the least pejorative side of the meaning, one simply has not yet earned the right to receive a banner. Banners are given when one has earned the right to have a child. Young households, households that have not yet proven they are self-sustaining and able to follow the rules of society, are bannerless until they prove themselves. However, one can also become bannerless by violating society’s rules. Becoming pregnant without a banner can result in an entire household becoming bannerless for years. Other violations can also remove the possibility of a household receiving a banner. Possibly worst of all, if a person is born without a banner, that stigma attaches to him or her for a lifetime–although it was clearly not the baby’s fault. Being bannerless is a difficult burden to bear.

 

Bannerless tells the story of an investigation into a death. A bannerless man died under questionable circumstances. It might have been an accident. It might have been something else. Enid and Tomas are called in to find out.

 

When they arrive in Pasadan, they find a town in disarray. The council is dominated by a bully. Questions arise about other possible violations. The only thing everyone seems to agree on is that no one really liked the dead man, and he did not like anyone else. In the midst of this drama, Enid finds a more personal drama at hand: her former lover is now living in Pasadan.

 

Carrie Vaughn walks a fine line with aplomb. Bannerless is a police procedural set in a complex future world. She manages to keep the plot moving while building this world, setting up the foundations and the rules of the Coast Road communities at the same time as she uncovers the clues and reveals the denouement gradually. Enid is a dogged investigator, able to set aside both her complex history with former lover Dak and a personal tragedy that occurs near the end of the investigation in order to find the truth. When she reveals it, the full implications of becoming Bannerless will be revealed to both the characters and the readers.

 

Bannerless is a fascinating book with a complex world and a compelling protagonist. I am glad Carrie Vaughn is continuing to explore this world in her work, and I look forward to reading her next novel.

Bannerlass, Carrie Vaughn

Book Review: Bannerless, Carrie Vaughn

Book Review: Seafire, Natalie C. Parker

Book Review: Seafire, Natalie C. Parker

Seafire

Young Adult Fiction: Seafire, Natalie C. Parker

Seafire is the young adult adventure I want my granddaughters to read when they get older. Natalie C. Parker has put together a tale of rebellion on the high seas that features as tough a heroine as you may ever meet in Caledonia Styx, captain of the Seafire, a ship with an all female crew. This first book of a planned YA trilogy starts with fire and fury and keeps building to a conclusion that would do Hollywood proud.

 

Caledonia Styx is only fourteen when she and her best friend, Pisces, go on a supply run to a small island. While there, Caledonia is attacked by a “Bullet,” a sailor/soldier of the despot Aric Athair. She is stabbed and grievously wounded. Their ship, captained by Caledonia’s mother, is taken and the entire crew killed.

 

Caledonia and Pisces manage to salvage the remnants of the ship and escape. They rebuild her and rename her the Mors Navis, and recruit a crew of all girls and women to fight Aric Athair. Several years later, their fights are inflicting minimal damage on the despot’s fleet. Enough to get his attention and ignite his wrath, but not nearly enough to do any real damage. Then, a battle goes a bit sideways. Pisces is captured, but as the Mors Navis turns to flee, a tow rope goes taut. Pisces is on the other end of it, free, but she is not alone. A young man has helped her escape, but insists on fleeing with her. And suddenly Caledonia must face some difficult choices. Can she trust a male, a bullet, after the betrayal that cost her family? Is the information he gives accurate and actionable? Dare she put her crew and her ship into the danger that acting on his information would mean?

 

Seafire is a fun and exciting adventure on the high seas. The world Parker builds is a future dystopian world where some technologies have survived, some have advanced, and others have been lost. Thus the ships are a mixture of old and speculative technologies that lets Parker’s characters frolic in some wild seas. In some ways this is an old story, but with new flourishes. At one point Caledonia is asked whether she is a pirate queen. She laughs and replies, No. She’s a rebel. She and her band of merry women are Robin Hoods on the waves, robbing from the rich (though they are poor enough themselves they don’t give much away) and seeking to frustrate the rule of cruel Aric and break his tyrannical grip. Having a bunch of girls and young women who can steer the ship and swing the swords just adds to the fun.

 

The girls and women of the Seafire are wonderfully described. Parker does not pretend that the average girl will have a physical advantage over the average boy, but she does not assume that those differences would matter much if circumstances can be tilted unexpectedly. The crew of the Seafire is well-conditioned, strong, and smart. They can hold their own in a fight, but they also use their intelligence and their skill and their teamwork to change the circumstances to their favor. They don’t mind being underestimated. In fact, they will use that. So you think you have us surrounded? We have hidden part of our crew, and you are the ones surrounded! You think you have disarmed me? You did not realize this object I hold is a remote detonator, and your problems have only just begun. These women will fight for their sisters. They will die for their sisters. But they will take a lot of others down with them before they die, and their love for each other will take them through every obstacle that they face.

 

Parker has created a terrific space for her characters to work with, and she has created some terrific characters to work in that space. I am looking forward to the sequels coming to this first book, and I am looking forward to my preschool granddaughters getting a few years older so they can appreciate the kickass women who crew the Seafire. My oldest granddaughter loves “feisty” heroines (“feisty” is her word). They don’t come any feistier than Caledonia Styx.

Also see: Booklist: Fun Summer Reads

Seafire

Book Review: Seafire, Natalie C. Parker

Book Review: Senlin Ascends, Josiah Bancroft

Book Review: Senlin Ascends, Josiah Bancroft

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Fiction: Senlin AscendsJosiah Bancroft

Senlin Ascends is the first book in the series, “The Books of Babel.” Thomas Senlin and his wife Marya are on their honeymoon. Senlin is headmaster of the school in a small fishing village. He has long studied and taught about the most amazing technological achievement in the world: the Tower of Babel. Newly married, the couple decides to spend their honeymoon visiting this marvel. Almost immediately after arriving, they are separated and Marya becomes lost. It takes Thomas a couple of days to realize this. By the time he does, the trail has gone cold and his only hope is that Marya has successfully made it to their intended destination on the third floor of the tower. Thomas embarks on a journey into the tower. There he finds that nothing is as it seems, no one is who they say they are, and everything he thought he knew about the tower was wrong.

 

Senlin Ascends is set in a dark dystopian world. The tower is a technological marvel, still under construction after 1,000 years. Most of the world has very limited access to technology. Marya and Thomas travel to the tower via steam engine train, and later we see Thomas’s amazement when he encounters electricity for the first time. The tower has access to more advanced technologies, but Thomas finds the rules governing behavior and organization in the tower are unique and often must be discovered by breaking them. Failure to follow the rules can have severe consequences. Failure to know the rules is irrelevant.

 

After spending several days surmounting the obstacles that face travelers on levels one and two of the tower, Senlin finds his first clue that Marya is still alive when he is on level three. Level three, though, is also where he begins to appreciate just how much trouble she–and really, both of them–are in. Their short honeymoon journey is going to be a trial of many months, and there are many challenging enemies who oppose them finding each other. And a mild-mannered intellectual headmaster is ill-equipped to meet the challenges of a world that doesn’t make sense. If Thomas Senlin is to find his beautiful bride, he will have to become something he never expected: a hero.

 

The two journeys of Senlin Ascends are both fascinating. The physical journey through the tower is vividly imagined. Each floor has its own culture, its own set of rules, its own internal logic that must be mastered before one can proceed. There are no shortcuts. Failure to follow the rules means banishment from the tower…or worse. But the rules change on each floor, the people in charge owe nothing to anyone else, and following the rules can require compromising your own ethics. Senlin finds that the price of success, the price of moving forward, the price of finding Marya, gets higher the further he goes. But he has no choice if he hopes to be reunited with his love.

 

The physical journey requires a hero’s journey for the protagonist. Thomas Senlin thinks he knows who he is. Intellectual. Calm. Reserved. A man of peace. The kind of man the tower destroys and spits out before passing the first floor. Senlin discovers that he can become more, but he also discovers that the price is high. The man of peace must seek out confrontation. The loyal husband must walk away from friends. The man who understands the world must understand that he knows nothing about this world. These are not easy transitions, and one suspects that the man who eventually finds Marya inside the tower will not be the same man who lost her outside those walls.

 

The second book in this series is Arm of the Sphinx. The third book, The Hod King, is due out in early 2019. Josiah Bancroft has started an interesting fable with Senlin Ascends, and I look forward to reading the subsequent adventures set in this curious and dark world.

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Book Review: Senlin AscendsJosiah Bancroft

Book Review: An Unkindness of Ghosts, Rivers Solomon

Book Review: An Unkindness of Ghosts, Rivers Solomon

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Science Fiction: An Unkindness of GhostsRivers Solomon

I love finding new books from authors with different voices. Often, their characters are refreshing and also speak with different voices, representing populations that open my eyes to people I might otherwise overlook.  Rivers Solomon is such an author, and the lead character “Aster” in An Unkindness of Ghosts has that voice. Aster is poor, mixed race, sexually ambivalent (“they” is the preferred pronoun for the character–and for the author), and leaps off the page with fire and rage.

 

The Matilda is a spaceship that has been searching for a new home for humanity for centuries. On board the spaceship, differences between race and class mean everything. A religious/military government, basically comprised of white people, rules harshly over the entire ship. Lower decks are lower class–and largely black or brown in skin color. Into this stratified world walks Aster. Aster is brilliant in many ways: studying under the ship’s Surgeon General Aster has learned traditional medicine. Aster has also learned from books and from experimentation how to grow plants and distill medicines that replace those withheld from the lower classes by the ruling elites. That genius is both recognized and resented by people throughout the ship. Others with darker skin appreciate the skill, but resent that Aster has access to parts of the ship they cannot visit. Guards and rulers also appreciate Aster’s skill, but feel compelled to remind Aster constantly that they are in charge. Aster is a freak, and few can see past the freakishness to appreciate the person inside.

 

An Unkindness of Ghosts is a powerful book, creating a world that pulls the reader in. It is dark. The book does not offer easy answers, it does not end with “and they lived happily ever after.” Aster is a survivor. Sometimes, survival is ugly. It is also triumphant, though. Aster’s answers may not be the answers they, or we, were looking for. But life often refuses to give the answers we want. What matters is what we do with the answers we are given. An Unkindness of Ghosts demands that we examine who the “freaks” are–those who are born differently, who choose a different path, who wear a different skin, who love fiercely the people they love whatever their gender, or those who draw lines between “us” and “them,” who use skin color and gender to divide, who treat power as the opportunity to abuse and mistreat. The Matilda may be a dystopian nightmare. Perhaps, that type of misery is the fertilizer needed for an Aster to fully bloom.

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