The trend in post-apocalyptic fiction is usually for brutality and dog-eat-dog, for cruelty and nihilism. Rarely do you find quiet, practical, damn near domestic stories about life in the communities that have grown up in the aftermath of apocalypse, ones that have rebuilt themselves along sustainable lines, and maintained semi-decent medicine and the ability to manufacture contraceptives. Communities with social consciences and systems in place to keep them functional.
Carrie Vaughn’s Bannerless (2017, winner of the Philip K. Dick Award) and The Wild Dead (2018) are set in the towns of the Coast Road, communities that share an ethos and a style of co-operative government along the coast of what used to be California. People in Coast Road communities are organised into households, and households earn the right to bear and raise children by proving they can take care of them. Careful management of quotas of farming and production ensures that no one grows rich—but no one goes too hungry, either, and the communities look after their members and each other.
Enid of Haven is an investigator, one of the people who mediate disputes, settle problems too large for local committees, and look into things like hoarding, exceeding quota, and unsanctioned pregnancies (because the presence of another unexpected mouth to feed puts strain on the whole community, and too many of those make the communities less able to be viable). In Bannerless, she’s only recently been promoted to full investigator status, and interpersonal crime is fairly rare, so it’s a surprise when she and her work partner, Tomas, are asked to examine a suspicious death in a nearby village called Pasadan. The dead man was a loner in a community of close-knit households, isolated by preference. His death looks like murder, and in investigating it, Enid finds herself digging into the cracks and faultlines in the community, exposing things that they’d rather keep hidden, and discovering that at least one household in Pasadan has been keeping secrets for a significant period of time.
Bannerless intersperses the narrative of adult Enid with a more youthful Enid, growing up, and then in her late adolescence as she leaves home for the first time to walk the Coast Road with a musician and drifter called Dak—the first person she ever had romantic feelings for. Younger Enid is an acute observer, responsible, deeply compassionate, and interested in everything: one can see her trajectory as someone who solves human problems set even before she knows it herself.
The novel brings all its pieces together in a satisfying, quiet, and very human narrative.
The Wild Dead is a sequel to Bannerless. Enid, now with a young investigator on his very first case—Teeg—is called upon to visit the furthest northern edge of Coast Road territory, to mediate a dispute over an old building in the community known as the Estuary. It should be simple, but before Enid can render her decision and return home to where the other members of her household are expecting their first child, the body of a young woman—killed by violence—is found on the edges of nearby marshland.
The dead woman isn’t from any of the Coast Road settlements, but rather from one of the communities of nomads and “wild folk” who live outside its rules and boundaries. Enid must stay to see justice done, but many people in the Estuary don’t see an outsider as any of their business, or her death as any of their problem. And Enid’s new partner, Teeg, is headstrong and opinionated, prone to leaping to conclusions and not inclined to look past the first, easy answer. Enid’s search for truth will lead her up into the camps of the wild folk and to uncover old, unhealed faultlines in the community before she can arrive at anything like justice, and before she can bring herself to go home.
These are gorgeous books. Told from Enid’s perspective, written in spare and compelling prose, they are quiet, introspective murder mysteries, deeply invested in ethics and in kindness. Kindness, in fact, lies at their heart—and the push-pull of the best, and the worst, impulses of humanity as they go about their daily life. Enid represents some of the best, in her quiet, staid, determined, unshowy fashion, and the depth of her character is what makes these novels truly shine.
Carrie Vaughn may still be best known for her Kitty the Werewolf series, but Bannerless and The Wild Dead show that her talents are versatile. I really enjoyed these novels. I would very much like to read more of them.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and is nominated for a Hugo Award in Best Related Work. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.