Catastrophe, Culture, and Crime: Carrie Vaughn’s Bannerless Saga

New York Times-bestselling author Carrie Vaughn is probably best known in the fantasy, science fiction, and romance genres for her widely acclaimed Kitty Norville urban fantasy series. In addition, Vaughn has written several other novels, as well as more than 80 short stories—two of which were nominated for the Hugo Award. Despite all this, her name may still be new to mystery lovers.

While her previous work is superb and certainly contains elements of mystery, her Bannerless Saga—including 2017’s Bannerless and its follow up, The Wild Dead—contains nuanced mysteries set in a science fictional, post-apocalyptic United States that relies heavily on strong, introspective characters and phenomenal worldbuilding. But what makes these two novels stand out among the crowd are how much they showcase the way culture impacts motives in crime. Mystery lovers should definitely not shy away from the science fiction setting, rather, they should observe the lesson that crime is inextricably linked to human beings, no matter the situation. A brand-new society created out of a post-apocalypse scenario is going to heavily influence motives, but the end results are the same.

Enid of Haven was born long after the Fall of society as we know it. Though the Fall is a relatively recent occurrence—only three or four generations ago—it’s something that happened to human society over a gradual period of time as a deadly mix of disease and catastrophic climate events eroded life as we know it now.

They could remember the last Super Bowl and World Series and Olympics and the last movie they’d seen or concert they went to, but not when it was decided that there wouldn’t be another. The Fall didn’t leave a definitive mark on the memory of society, not like such a disaster should have.

Though most technologies did not survive, the people who lived through the Fall kept records of as much as they could. Enid is fascinated by what came before and the reasons society fell, and I believe that this is part of what motivates her to transform into the person she becomes. Enid grows up to become an investigator, traveling from town to town along the Coast Road as small enclaves request her services when crimes are too big to be solved within the communities themselves. But the why and how of the death she’s sent to investigate within the town of Pasadan is peripheral to the mystery of who Enid is as a character, and that’s the mystery that really drives the plot of Bannerless.

We see two timelines of Enid’s life here: first, as a young girl taking shelter with her household against a deadly storm. It’s here we learn a bit of what her world is like and discover their communal lifestyle with very strict rules of governance. Vaughn does not make this system seem oppressive, however. The citizens are clearly thriving in a harsh world, and they’re happy with what they have—for the most part.

The population is tightly monitored through required birth control and the earning of Banners once a person has proven they are capable of taking care of themselves and creating enough surplus of supplies to also take care of a child. Each town is comprised of communal households where everyone contributes, including in child rearing. Birth parents aren’t as consequential or special as we think of them now, as everyone in a household equally parents whatever children live within. And as long as a person contributes to society in some way—either with labor or talent—they are free to do pretty much as they wish.

Enid meets a wandering musician, Dak, and is instantly swept off her feet. But this is no romance. It’s more of a coming of age as she joins his travels to see more of the world and what life is like away from the neatly organized society of the Coast Road. And what she sees leaves an indelible mark on her as she returns to the familiar society of her home. This early exposure to others outside of the Coast Road culture comes into play in The Wild Dead when a routine investigation, years after the events of Bannerless have taken place, turns into something bigger when a mysterious body is found on the shore of another settlement.

Bannerless alternates between Enid’s early life as she comes of age and the life she’s established 10 years later, which is when Enid leads an investigation into the death of one of the Coast Road town’s lonelier citizens, a man name Seo. Ariana—another citizen of the town who is one of the three committee members that helps lead the town in decision making—has called Enid and her childhood friend, Tomas, also an investigator, to discover the truth of what’s happened to this man. This is against the wishes of another investigator, Philos, who is adamant that the town can figure this out on their own.

Enid discovers more than the town expects or welcomes, and while she’s faced with deciding the consequences as the sole arbiter, she must think back to what she saw out in the ruins of our former society and to the reasons for her society’s continued survival in which even the smallest act can ripple out and affect all of their futures. It’s not about simple crime and punishment. In such a small community, where everyone relies so heavily on everyone else to continue the survival of the human race in a perilous world with unpredictable climate, every action matters.

The Wild Dead picks up on these threads and continues to reinforce the theme of how this culture—so very different from what Americans know now—has such different attitudes towards survival and conservation of resources, not to mention the communal nature of living in order to maximize those resources. And again, the theme of going against the group and living on the fringes or even wholly outside of the community comes up as one house in the Estuary settlement not only lives apart from their community because of an attempt at a bannerless pregnancy but also trades with the wild people who live in the woods. The same sorts of people Enid met in the ruins who live apart from the Coast Road and make their own way. And it’s one of these people who’s murdered and found on the shores of this community.

But this murder is not the same as the one in Bannerless. The motives are different, and Enid and her new partner, Teeg, must look beyond the scope of what they know to find answers. Every crime story reveals secrets, and this one is no different, as the story ventures away from the Coast Road communities and into the wild. The interactions between what the Coast Road people call Outsiders and the citizens of the Road really highlight the effects on a community post-cataclysm as well as how people choose to organize societies for mutual survival benefits. All in all, it’s a fascinating look at the possibilities one faces when tasked with starting a whole society from scratch, and it’s refreshing to encounter a mystery story that covers so much territory on culture and crime in a masterfully plotted novel. And now, we have not one but two novels that do so expertly in a series that will hopefully continue in the future.

Bannerless and The Wild Dead are powerful novels with more than just a murder mystery at their hearts. Ultimately, they are novels about survival, community, love, and consequences, which will stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page. The Bannerless Saga is Carrie Vaughn at her very best.

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