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
Rating:
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

Family Reads: Borne by Jeff VanderMeer

Family Reads banner

Born out of a desire to get a family of book lovers to connect more over what they’re reading, Family Reads is an occasional feature where my mom, dad or sister and I read and discuss a book.

Why we chose Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne

Borne by jeff Vandermeer

Ash and I read VanderMeer’s Annhiliation  for our first Family Reads together (two years ago tomorrow!). When we heard of Borne, we agreed that we should read and discuss it for Family Reads. Somehow, I didn’t expect our discussion to turn out so similar to our discussion on Annhilation – though I suppose I should have known better given the author and the subject matter! We went back forth and circle around various plot related questions. Because of the nature of our discussion, this was a difficult one for me to hammer into a narrative suitable for a blog post, but I tried, haha. I decided to focus on three topics: the cover and setting, what was revealed in the Company building at the end, and the role of the Magician. (Somehow, we talked for an hour and didn’t even begin to talk about Borne or the environmental implications of the story or Rachel and Wick’s relationship or any of the other interesting bits of the story. There’s a lot going on in this fascinating book!)

In Borne, a young woman named Rachel survives as a scavenger in a ruined city half destroyed by drought and conflict. The city is dangerous, littered with discarded experiments from the Company—a biotech firm now derelict—and punished by the unpredictable predations of a giant bear. Rachel ekes out an existence in the shelter of a run-down sanctuary she shares with her partner, Wick, who deals his own homegrown psychoactive biotech.

One day, Rachel finds Borne during a scavenging mission and takes him home. Borne as salvage is little more than a green lump—plant or animal?—but exudes a strange charisma. Borne reminds Rachel of the marine life from the island nation of her birth, now lost to rising seas. There is an attachment she resents: in this world any weakness can kill you. Yet, against her instincts—and definitely against Wick’s wishes—Rachel keeps Borne. She cannot help herself. Borne, learning to speak, learning about the world, is fun to be with, and in a world so broken that innocence is a precious thing. For Borne makes Rachel see beauty in the desolation around her. She begins to feel a protectiveness she can ill afford.

“He was born, but I had borne him.”

But as Borne grows, he begins to threaten the balance of power in the city and to put the security of her sanctuary with Wick at risk. For the Company, it seems, may not be truly dead, and new enemies are creeping in. What Borne will lay bare to Rachel as he changes is how precarious her existence has been, and how dependent on subterfuge and secrets. In the aftermath, nothing may ever be the same.

Our Discussion

You’ll get more out of this discussion if you’ve already read the book (spoilers abound!).

Cover and Location

One of the more superficial things Ash and I loved about the Southern Reach trilogy are the cover designs by Charlotte Strick. Borne also has a striking cover (by Rodrigo Corral) that we loved but we had to ask – did the flower have anything to do with the story? Plant life seemed to play less of a role in Borne than in Annihilation. Perhaps the easiest answer is that the plant represents the general degradation of Rachel and Wick’s world. One theory we came up with about the flower is that maybe it has something to do with Rachel being from a tropical island. Then we had to backtrack and ask, where is Rachel from? Ash imagined Indonesia; I went with Madagascar. (Where do birds of paradise grow? I looked this up after our discussion – native to South Africa, the emblem of Los Angeles…) Now we’re back to the cover. Ash chose Borne as her staff pick at work, so a lot of people have been asking her about the book because it has her name on it and they want to know if the story’s as cool as the cover. She tells them yes.

One last comment: Ash and I have come to enjoy VanderMeer’s books particularly for his world building. We love how he can be so vividly descriptive, yet still leave a lot to the reader’s imagination.

What’s really revealed at the end?

My big question that I wanted to discuss with Ash was what was actually revealed when Rachel and Wick went poking around the Company building. Our discussion wound back and forth as we tried to break things down.

What did Rachel learn at the Company building? Ash said that she learnt her memories weren’t real. Okay, then how much of her memories weren’t real? Did she just forget that blip surrounding her parents death, or could it be everything she remembers from before the city is false?

We didn’t settle on an answer to that question (which of Rachel’s memories are true or false) before moving on to what happened in the Company building when Rachel first arrived, if she and her parents came in crates through some kind of portal? Of course, that led us back to another question – is the city Rachel and Wick inhabitant an alternate reality or the world we know? That’s what I was trying to get at at the beginning of our discussion when I asked what was revealed in the company building. Was the existence of a parallel universe, alternate reality, whatever, established? We agreed that it was (with the caveat that we both blaze through endings too quickly so maybe we missed some nuance). That led us two theories: 1) Rachel’s city is an alternate reality that the Company entered to mess around with biotech or 2) Rachel’s city is in ‘our’ world, the ‘real’ world, and the Company messed it up so bad they went to an alternate reality – the good city viewed in Company building. Our conversation drifted from there – whichever theory might be the right one doesn’t really matter – but we agreed that the big reveal had been the existence of another world/dimension/reality.

 

The Magician

The relationship between Rachel and the Magician was one I had lots of questions about. I wondered why she seemed to be an antagonist. Didn’t she just want to get rid of Mord? Why did she have to be awful to Wick and Rachel?  Ash suggested that, since she worked for the Company, maybe she felt guilty for that and wanted to improve the city. I noted that the Magician didn’t know about the wall/portal and Wick did – he was higher ranking than her? (Then there’s that thing about Wick being biotech…) One part that really puzzled me at first was Rachel killing the Magician just like that and commenting that the Magician didn’t have any power over her because she had already read Wick’s letter. Wick’s letter mentions that the Magician acquires Rachel’s memories. Could this mean more than initially thought? Maybe the Magician has absorbed, internalized, all of Rachel’s true memories…maybe the Magician is who Rachel was before.

Final Thoughts

 

 

I thought Borne was a more straightforward book than Annihilation but maybe not, given our discussion! We never really came to conclusions, but we still enjoyed theorizing. I left out a lot of random stuff (about Mord, multiple Bornes, etc.) because this post was getting out of hand.

As we wrapped our discussion, I wondered which I book I enjoyed more – Borne or Annihilation? Just comparing comparing Annihilation (not the entire trilogy) and Borne – ooh, well, I think I prefer Annihilation for the world building and Borne for the characters. When I asked Ash which she preferred, she said the same thing! Though they’re similar in a number of ways, each book has its own strength and we recommend both. Have you read any of Jeff VanderMeer’s works? What are your theories for what was going on in Borne?
Jenna's signature

Brief Thoughts: Urban Dystopia

Are these books technically dystopias? To me they are! If we want to describe them more generally, I’d call them ‘furturistic YA scifi’. 

In the Unwind Dystology, Neal Shusterman thrilled readers with the story of a society that deals with its out-of-control teens by “unwinding” them—transplanting more than 99% of their bodies into other people. In the latest installment of this sequence, Shusterman—along with collaborators Terry Black, Michelle Knowlden, Brendan Shusterman, and Jarrod Shusterman—explores even more aspects of a world that has accepted the unacceptable. These short stories examine the world of unwinding in a way we haven’t seen before, providing a fresh framework, new characters, and a different take on some events.

One last hurrah in the world of Unwinds! I have enjoyed every work I’ve read by Shusterman. Though I still think Unwind (the first book in the series) remains the strongest, Shusterman created a fascinating world that deserved the further exploration he gave it. Even after four books that tied up Connor, Lev, and Risa’s stories, there were questions and scenarios that us fans would love to read about. This book does not feature any stories about Connor, Lev, and Risa after the events of UnDivided(final book in the series). I feel that’s appropriate given, like I mentioned, their story was told in the actual series. There is one story featuring Hayden and Grace that alludes to what they might be up to.  Stories include background on Jasper and Roland, why Risa was sent to be unwound, and the experimental activities of the Dah Zey. Unbound makes a great read for anyone who’s still curious about the Unwind dystopia after finishing book four.

In this dark urban fantasy, a young woman and a young man must choose whether to become heroes or villains—and friends or enemies—with the future of their home at stake. Kate Harker and August Flynn are the heirs to a divided city—a city where the violence has begun to breed actual monsters. All Kate wants is to be as ruthless as her father, who lets the monsters roam free and makes the humans pay for his protection. All August wants is to be human, as good-hearted as his own father, to play a bigger role in protecting the innocent—but he’s one of the monsters. One who can steal a soul with a simple strain of music. When the chance arises to keep an eye on Kate, who’s just been kicked out of her sixth boarding school and returned home, August jumps at it. But Kate discovers August’s secret, and after a failed assassination attempt the pair must flee for their lives.

I have only read Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic and its sequel A Gathering of Shadows, but those two were enough to enamour me to her. (The Archived has actually been on my TBR for a few years, though I can’t get motivated to read it since there’s no set publication date for the final book.) I enjoyed ADSoM so much that I became eager to read This Savage Song. I probably would not have read this book had it been written by anyone else. This book is YA gritty urban fantasy. It doesn’t pretend to be anything else. After a somewhat slow start, the action picks up and the story remains quick-paced.  I should have known better than to expect I would fall in love with it just because of the author. It’s not my type of story. If you enjoy urban fantasy, I think you will enjoy this book. It is what I imagine to be standard in the genre. This is the first book in a duology. I liked it fine enough that I’ll probably read the second when it comes out. I want to know more about the monsters! They were different than I expected.

Have you read any books by Neal Shusterman or Victoria Schwab?   

Review: Dreambender by Ronald Kidd

Author: Ronald Kidd
  Title: Dreambender 
Format/Source: eBook/NetGalley
Published: 1 March 2016
Publisher: Albert Whitman & Co.
Length: 256 pages
Genre: Middle-grade dystopia
Why I Read: Liked cover + description
Read If You’re: N/A
Rating
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon   I received a complimentary copy from the publisher through Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.

Everyone in the City is assigned a job by the choosers–keeper, catcher, computer. Callie Crawford is a computer. She works with numbers: putting them together, taking them apart. Her work is important, but sometimes she wants more. Jeremy Finn is a dreambender. His job is to adjust people’s dreams. He and others like him quietly remove thoughts of music and art to keep the people in the City from becoming too focused on themselves and their own feelings rather than on the world. They need to keep the world safe from another Warming. But Jeremy thinks music is beautiful, and when he pops into a dream of Callie singing, he becomes fascinated with her. He begins to wonder if there is more to life than being safe. Defying his community and the role they have established for him, he sets off to find her in the real world. Together, they will challenge their world’s expectations. But how far will they go to achieve their own dreams?

Oh dear. This was not a good book. I wouldn’t have finished this book if it wasn’t an ARC. Thankfully now the remainder of my year’s reading should all be uphill from here!

 The story falls extremely short of the copy description, which seems full of potential. Unfortunately there is nothing more to the story. All aspects (world building, character development, prose, etc.) lack any substance. There’s no purpose, explanation or motivation to anything. It’s like something written by a 12 year old. (I say this recognizing features of my own 12 year old style.) I couldn’t believe I was actually reading a school teacher info dump that attempted to explain everything about dreambending while showing how gifted one of the MCs is. That whole weird, awkward  introduction to dreambending exemplifies many of the issues I have with this book. I had so many questions (not the good kind you want to have while reading). Why is Jeremy questioning, why are they starting dreambending suddenly, how did they get to this point, etc. Throughout the novel I was always asking ‘What, why, what, why is this happening?’ 

 There’s nothing really holding the narrative together. I felt there were a lot of random ‘WTF why is that happening now’ moments. The story feels very disjointed, with nothing really happening. The conclusion is especially eye rolling, with the ‘conflict’ fizzling away and everybody becoming friends with little convincing.

 The prose and dialogue is very blah and basic, predictable in a way. For example: ““Try it,” he said. “It’s good.” I eyed it and decided it probably was, if you were a beaver. I didn’t want to be rude, though, so I nibbled the edge of it. Amazingly, he was right.” Amazingly! -.-

 The characters all clearly demonstrate the concept of ‘one dimensional’. Protagonists Callie and Jeremy are ‘different’ and ‘special’, questioning the world around them with absolutely no reason for doing so. Whenever one made a ‘wise’ comment, I rolled my eyes and thought “Puh-lease, where would you get that from?” Nothing differentiates them from cardboard characters. The other characters, such as Callie’s ‘city friends’ and the kids living in Between, also read as caricatures constructed solely to drive the thin plot.  Finally, the foundation of the dystopia make no sense. Music and personal feelings caused ‘the Warming’ because people were too focused on themselves? This seems to me a silly shallow argument, with no basis in reality, being the opposite of what I’ve experienced – such people are generally more in tune with nature and their environment. It’s the ones with no interest in art and only interest in profits that you might say are driving ‘the Warming’. Everyone (aside from our ‘special’ characters) are scared of music and art for no substantial reason.  The Bottom Line: There’s nothing here worth your time. Sounds like Kidd’s Night on Fire is a book you should check out instead. Further Reading:

Review: Acceptance by Jeff Vandermeer

Author: Jeff Vandermeer
Title: Acceptance
Series: Southern Reach #3
Format/Source: Paperback/Sister’s copy
Published: September 2014
Publisher: HarperCollins
Length: 338 pages
Genre: Dystopian scifi
Why I Read: Devoured the first book, trooped through the second book, excited for the final book
Read If You’re: Ready to get some answers about Area X!
Quote: “I could not come to terms with the possibility that one day I might put aside my vigilance and become the moaning creature in the weeds.” (164)
Rating:  ★★★★½ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon

Previously: My sister and I discuss the many mysteries of Area X presented in Annihilation (Southern Reach #1)  

I first read Annihilation because my sister selected it for Family Reads. I enjoyed the story so much I immediately jumped into Authority. Authority, however, greatly differs from Annihilation. I became less eager to read the final book in the trilogy. The fact that my library didn’t have a digital copy of it didn’t help! I contented myself to wait until I returned to Canada and could borrow my sister’s copy. In what felt like a reward for my patience with Authority, Acceptance gripped me from the first page. Broken into three parts – the light house keeper’s tale before Area X is fully Area X, the director’s tale before the 11th expedition, and Ghost Bird + Control’s tale in the present – VanderMeer has penned an intense conclusion to the Southern Reach tale.

I’d like to pause here for a second and talk about the differences between each book in the trilogy. Acceptance felt more similar to Annihilation (than Authority), but the two books still feel independent from one another. I found Acceptance more intriguing and more intense, whereas Annihilation felt more like an exploration. Authority I found mostly bureaucratic and mostly dull. Annihilation and Authority are brought together primarily via Acceptance, but each book has its own style. Don’t try too hard to make them match up with each other (i.e., don’t expect a consistent style of narration) – they’ll fit together naturally as you start connecting the dots.

In terms of pace, Acceptance steps away from Authority back towards Annihilation. I blazed through Acceptance, reading in a way I haven’t read for a long time. I forgot about that feeling! When you’re reading solely for the story’s sake, because it fills you with a fiery excitement and you just have to know what happens next. One scene that sticks in my mind because of this feeling is when Lowry confronts the director and I had to pause in the middle of it to go back to class. Acceptance kicks off with a quick start, hitting you with more questions, but then gives ANSWERS, to other older, questions you may have been wondering about since Annihilation. After the first two books, I had wholly resolved myself to not receiving any answers about Area X’s mysteries, so I was surprised but extremely pleased to find certain answers suddenly being dropped. Such answers were unexpected, but (appropriately, I would say) only a handful of questions are really answered and you’ll still have plenty to ponder about the bigger questions. The prose, understated compared to what I usually enjoy, works well in conveying the shocks, surprises, tensions and can’t-stop-now moments that I’ll remember this story for.

All my notes on this book can be divided into two categories: A) “AHHHHH OMG CAN’T BELIEVE I’M READING THIS” and/or B) “Ohhhh whoa I can’t believe I’m reading this!”. Both of these comment types I’ve discussed above (A = driving moments that suck you into the story, B = answers I wasn’t expecting). I don’t have anything else I want to write about! I think I would have to read this trilogy twice, back to back, to really get all the answers that are locked within. Some things are clearly spelt out in Acceptance, but I get the sense there’s so much more I would understand if I really paid attention… (for example, I think a lot to do with Whitby went over my head). But, this feeling doesn’t frustrate me. I don’t think you need to have all the answers to enjoy this trilogy. But I bet there is more to be mined if you’re willing to dig deeper! And now we’ve come full circle to what my sister and I discussed after finishing the first book…I can’t wait til she finishes the trilogy and we can hash out the entire thing.

The Bottom Line: Don’t let Authority keep you from finishing the trilogy! Acceptance is worth your time. 

Further Reading: