In light of the current dystopian mess of our political present, it’s increasingly difficult to set aside time for dystopian fiction. But Carrie Vaughn’s Bannerless (2017) strikes a unique balance, removing us from the current quagmire to a future both accessible and escapist, but that also doesn’t shirk the responsibility of thoughtful, cautionary futurism.
Set in the Pacific Northwest in a post-collapse future, Bannerless is a multi-track murder mystery. Enid is an investigator who serves a loose coalition of settlements along the Coast Road, her job to enforce the simple, pragmatic laws that have evolved in the region following the fall of civilization. Enid and her partner Tomas are called to a nearby settlement, Pasadan, to investigate a death that everyone claims to have been accidental. But the paranoid, shady reactions of the townsfolk lead Enid to dig deeper, and her investigation — complicated somewhat by the appearance of an old flame named Dak — threatens to expose troubling truths about this stark, peaceful new world, and the troubling human nature that persists within it.
Bannerless’ rustic post-collapse future is plausible and nicely detailed, and the story is characterized by Vaughn’s usual, effortlessly read prose, solid characters, and smooth pacing. The mystery plot dominates the foreground, but the narrative also bounces back to Enid’s past to explore her relationship with Dak — a coming-of-age backstory that seems disconnected from the intrigue, but cleverly ties into the novel’s themes. In the end, the mystery-solving procedural aspects of the story aren’t hugely captivating, but they provide a solid framework upon which to hang the book’s cautionary themes, a convincing flashback romance, and an effective character study of the protagonist’s growth.