A generation after the Fall—catastrophic worldwide economic and environmental collapse—a new society has grown up along the Coast Road. Carefully managed resources are shared in communal households, which must prove their worthiness in order to be awarded a “banner” that permits them to have a child. Only the very oldest of the old remember life before the Fall. Technology has mostly reverted to farming, fishing, and handcrafting; small communities of households trade with each other for goods they can’t produce themselves, and are governed by town committees. Infractions—the worst is a bannerless pregnancy—are handled by investigators, who work in pairs for the regional committee. Enid, a young woman who grew up in Haven, the leading community, has been an investigator for just three years and has never handled a murder case. Then she and her older partner Tomas are summoned to investigate a suspicious death in the town of Pasadan, two days’ journey away.
Almost immediately on Enid and Tomas’s arrival, it is clear that something in Pasadan is not as it should be. There is obvious discord among the committee members, and the dead man, Sero, was an outcast who belonged to no household—although he was a skilled craftsman who owned a precious tool from before the Fall. And, to Enid’s shock, her former lover Dak, an itinerant musician when she traveled the Coast Road with him years before, has settled down in a Pasadan household. Everyone, including Dak, seems to know more than they will admit, and no one welcomes an investigation.
Bannerless shifts back and forth between Enid’s youth and travels with Dak and the present investigation in Pasadan. The story’s alternating structure paints a fascinating picture of how a new society has grown up, whose paramount rule is never to waste resources, while showing how Enid came to be the person that she is—brave, persistent, with little tolerance for secrets and lies, but kind, empathetic, and wise beyond her years. Bannerless is first-rate speculative fiction, peopled with vivid, relatable characters.