Review: Bannerless Doesn’t Live Up to its Premise

Bannerless by Carrie Vaughn

BannerlessFormat/Source: eBook/Netgalley
Published: 11 July 2017
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Post-apocalypse/Mystery
GoodReads Indigo | IndieBound | Wordery
I received a copy from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.

Decades after economic and environmental collapse destroys much of civilization in the United States, the Coast Road region isn’t just surviving but thriving by some accounts, building something new on the ruins of what came before. A culture of population control has developed in which people, organized into households, must earn the children they bear by proving they can take care of them and are awarded symbolic banners to demonstrate this privilege. In the meantime, birth control is mandatory.  Enid of Haven is an Investigator, called on to mediate disputes and examine transgressions against the community. She’s young for the job and hasn’t yet handled a serious case. Now, though, a suspicious death requires her attention. The victim was an outcast, but might someone have taken dislike a step further and murdered him?  In a world defined by the disasters that happened a century before, the past is always present. But this investigation may reveal the cracks in Enid’s world and make her question what she really stands for.

I went into this book hoping for some clever literary fiction exploring questions of population management, bodily autonomy, and maybe some critiquing of environmental and economic policies. I hoped the murder mystery would take a back seat, functioning as frame for those questions. Unfortunately, Bannerless falls short in all those areas. Bannerless instead tells a simple coming of age tale and murder mystery, neither of which are particularly compelling.

The first thing about this book that stood out to me was the repetitive and self-explanatory prose. One aspect that particularly grated on me was the hammering on about how investigators are feared, terrible, powerful. Their brown uniforms symbolize of something awful, but who knows what. We’re told numerous times that the average person disdains investigators, yet the narration never shows why. I don’t like being told something over and over with no evidence. Perhaps its because investigators enforce rules that people don’t like? But we’re never shown effects of that – the system that most people live by functions well and we don’t see or hear about an investigator ruining someone’s life. (One person has an outburst about a household that was split up because an investigator discovered they were doing something illegal, but that has no connection to this story.)

Another related issue I had with the prose is that many sentences felt unnecessary, in that they told me something I could have inferred from the dialogue. It was an odd case of telling instead of showing – at times, the telling happened in addition to the showing. One chapter contains five instances of glaring, by the same two characters. In general, the prose reads amateurish and undeveloped.

This critique about the investigators ties into my main issue with the novel. Where is the dystopia? How does the investigation “reveal the cracks in Enid’s world and make her question what she really stands for”? Enid doesn’t seem to question her role as the blurb hints. The story doesn’t convincingly portray birth/population control as a negative thing, which, given the book’s dystopic tropes, I would assume is the goal. There’s talk of how children born bannerless (i.e. their parents didn’t have a banner and thus shouldn’t have had a child) are discriminated against. Enid encounters people living outside the households and banners structure, but they live desperate lives which enforces Enid’s belief in the banner system (not that she ever questioned the system). Based on what happens in the novel, I support the banner system, which ensures  if you can support a child, then you can have one. Wouldn’t that be the case in an ideal world? That everyone who has a child can support that child? Of course, that’s a simplistic view that should open the door for a more complex exploration of bodily autonomy and other concepts, but Bannerless makes no room for such an exploration.

It occurs to me now perhaps the story is more complex than I’m giving it credit for. Maybe it really is advocating this method of population control, or just trying to start that discussion by showing a positive side of population control. Yet I still feel that the story would have been improved by a more nuanced exploration of the various sides of that discussion. Plus, the book is being marketed as a dystopia so I’m not sure what what Enid was supposed to discover as she investigated the murder.

The story follows two threads – Enid as a teen travelling with musician Dak and Enid as a twenty-something investigating a murder. The murder mystery itself is simple and predictable, and thus pretty boring. The investigation is blah. Enid tries to talk to people, they don’t want to talk to her. She eventually figures it out. Hooray. I did like teen Enid, despite her slow story. She follows her own path. She makes the decision to travel with Dak and she makes the decision to leave him.

The Bottom Line:

Bannerless has the premise of a fascinating story, but the weak plot and dull storytelling make Bannerless one you can skip.

Further Reading:

Jenna's signature

  • Wowww that is SAD. I read the synopsis and like you, I found it VERY intriguing. But if none of those intriguing parts are IN the book, then what even is the point!? I mean, if you wanted to read a random coming of age murder mystery, you’d have picked one up hah. Then you add in the repetition and dullness… yeah, hard pass. So sorry this didn’t work out for you, but fabulous review! I hope your next book is better!

    • Thanks for your comment, Shannon! I’m always a little nervous about posting negative reviews, because I wonder if I’ve really justified my poor opinion of a book. Thankfully this is the only one-star book I’ve read this year. I certainly hope to keep it that way…

  • Hi, Evelina from Twitter visiting 🙂 if you still remember me. I loved this post! Very nice review. Definitely following you.
    It’s also not that easy to find literary pieces these days, maybe due to lack of popularity. Especially among mysteries. Have you read Station Eleven? If you haven’t, that might be closer to what you were looking for 🙂

    • Hi Evelina, thanks for stopping by! I’m so glad you like my review ^^ I try to be careful when writing a negative review because I want to fully explain and hopefully justify my opinion. I haven’t read Station Eleven. It does sound like a better read! Adding it to my TBR 🙂 (Now I am a bit embarrassed; I am so far behind on commenting I still haven’t visited your blog…but it’s in my feed reader and I’ve saved some posts for later!)

      • The way it goes for me with negative reviews is… kind of funny 😀 at first I’m all like.. “so, negative review time… meh.” Then I write a really funny post somehow. I don’t know why, but negative reviews will often yield pretty humorous posts! So then I’ve got a good post. And I’m like… “oh no, now my goodreads friends will not read it, cause people generally don’t read if it’s lower than 2 stars. NOOOOO” xD it’s kind of funny. On one hand, I don’t want them to read it because I hate giving negative reviews. On the other… The post just came out so good, I want people to read it and laugh xD it’s kind of funny that way 😀
        Station Eleven is awesome, and I also read The Stand by Stephen King pretty close to reading Station Eleven. Two different books, I’d say even different genres, but almost the same topic. And both and radiantly good. If you want literary, Station Eleven is the way to go, but if you like the premise of The Stand, I recommend that wholeheartedly as well. And maybe even reading them back to back 😀 that will be quite an experience. It was for me 🙂
        That’s alright, you can visit whenever you want 🙂 I am still way more behind! After that blog hop I literally had about 100 blogs to visit 😀 I have like 20-30 left, made a dent in it yesterday 😀

        • Haha, that is pretty interesting because it’s like the opposite of how I write negative reviews! I tend to get really serious and worked up, like “AUGHH now I remember, I also didn’t like this bit!! Why was it like that?!” That’s also a valid point about having written a funny review that your friends might not read. I kind of like reading negative reviews, especially of books on my TBR because I’m curious to hear what different readers thought of a book. A lot of the times I think “This reviewer didn’t like X and Y about this book, but I like those things, so I will probably still like the book” 😛

          Stephen King is another author I’ve never read but should really get around to. I think I’ve mostly avoided him because I don’t like long books ^^; But The Stand and Station Eleven both sound like books I would like! It’s pretty cool how authors can have the same premise for a book and then put their own spin on it and make it totally unique.

          • Oh yeah, absolutely true. When I’m checking out a new book, I will look at both the positive AND the negative reviews. Mostly cause I’m super curious about the negative reviews 😀 it’s always best to know all of the opinions. And sometimes they will list triggers that can be important too.

            And yeah, friends that are checking out the book might read it, but friends in your stream probably won’t, cause people normally check out good reviews on the stream, because they’re not interested in that book yet.

            Stephen King is amazing! He wrote shorter books too, but the longer ones are somehow the better ones 😉 The Stand was SUCH a good book I wish I could unread and read it again 😀

          • Good point re: people who will pass up a negative review because they didn’t have an interest in the book!

            Ahh, the longer ones are the better ones?! Maybe I’ll have to set myself some kind of daily challenge, like read 25 pages each day, haha.

          • I know what you mean 😀 but the thing is, with Stephen King’s books, you might not even notice the page count 🙂 they’re very immersing.

  • Erica Robyn

    Oh no, I hate when books are a total miss like that.

  • Hmm, that’s disappointing. I’ve enjoyed a couple of this author’s books, but her last one disappointed me too.

    • I haven’t read her other books, but it seems to me like she tried something different with this book and didn’t totally succeed…