Detective novels and police procedurals have a long history in the mystery genre. But what happens when police as we know them don’t exist? In B. L. Blanchard’s debut novel The Peacekeeper, the first in her new “The Good Lands” series, the Americas were never colonized. Western ideas about law and punishment are foreign. Instead of Law & Order, Blanchard creates a world of Peacekeepers and Advocates, one that embraces the genre readers know and love while creating a strikingly fresh take on solving crime.
The Peacekeeper opens on the festival of Manoomin, a traditional celebration in the Anishinaabe nation, Mino-Aki. The people of Baawitigong, situated in the same location as our world’s Sault Ste. Marie, take their canoes out into the water and harvest wild rice, the way their ancestors have always done. In the modern era, the celebration is witnessed by tourists from all over the world: the Islamic Empire, the Aztec and Mayan nations, Europe, China, the Asante Empire, and more. And despite the festival marking the tragedy that took place in his family twenty years ago, Chibenashi, a Peacekeeper, is on duty, making sure that the peace is kept.
In Baawitigong, there’s not a lot of crime. Chibenashi, one of two deputies under a head Peacekeeper, spends most of his work hours helping people find lost things. Lost, not stolen. The worst crime to face Baawitigong in Chibenashi’s life was the murder of his mother, twenty years before. His father confessed and was imprisoned, a punishment almost never used under the system of restitution used by the Anishinaabe people.
Seventeen at the time of the crime, Chibenashi becomes the caretaker of his twelve-year-old sister, Ashwiyaa, who witnessed an argument between his parents and fled to the woods. She has been traumatized ever since, barely able to see anyone besides Chibenashi and wholly dependent on him. Because he loves his sister, he never begrudges this care; it’s the two of them, together, and it always will be, no matter what other relationships this kinship costs him.
The only person in the town who helps care for Ashwiyaa is the best friend of Chibenashi’s mother, Meoquanee. After the murder, Meoquanee’s own husband and son left her for the city of Shikaakwa (our world’s Chicago), and the woman has filled that hole in her family by mothering Chibenashi and Ashwiyaa. When Meoquanee is murdered on the twentieth anniversary of Chibenashi’s mother’s death, Chibenashi takes it on himself to solve the crime. Even if it means going to Shikaakwa, the big city, a place he hates. It’s the place where his father is in prison, and the place the woman he loved left him for.
Blanchard’s reinvention of the Great Lakes region is fascinating, and the story’s familiar crime investigation structure allows readers to smoothly orient themselves into its world. Seeded throughout the story are words in Anishinaabemowin, the language of Ojibwe and Chippewa peoples (Blanchard is a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians). The context always makes the words easy to grasp, and the use of the language further deepens the sense that this is not our world; this is a world that might have been. There are cell phones and tablets as we’d know them, but other inventions are different: the city of Shikaakwa is sustainably built, with skyscrapers housing gardens and woods on the terraces, and solar energy to power the electricity needs of the residents.
But it’s not a utopia: Blanchard points out that in the village of Baawitigong, the community takes care of one another, and no one is left without, but in the city, there are people without homes, who live on the street. One of Chibenashi’s suspects, an economics professor, gives a lecture on why the economic structure of giving is inherently better than capitalism or communism—but that same character has all but abandoned his son and lives in greater luxury than his neighbors. Chibenashi’s country is supposedly one formed as a coalition of nations, but the detective he works with from Shikaakwa is from a minority group and insists that his own people were conquered by the Anishinaabe and are being erased. If Blanchard had created a full utopia, it would have been harder to believe, but her world is one that is full of flaws and human foibles.
Because the system of the Peacekeepers and the Advocates believes in making the victims of a crime “whole” in the wake of what happened to them—because the act itself cannot be undone—the whole tenor and treatment of crime is different. It makes the health of the community central to the story. But crime still occurs, and people still make choices that benefit only themselves, at the expense of the community. Chibenashi’s drive to solve a personal crime (especially when it becomes clear that the murder of his mother is undeniably related to Meoquanee’s death) means that he, too, faces choices that could benefit his own priorities over those of the larger community. That tension drives the novel, and while the identity of the murderer is unsurprising by the time it is revealed, the context and the reasons behind the crime are beautifully woven in among red herrings and false clues.
Blanchard’s The Peacekeeper would be a strong murder mystery just based on its plot and characters—in addition to the tortured Chibenashi, there is a scene-stealing pair from Shikaakwa (Peacekeeper Takumwah and Advocate Dakaasin) who could easily carry their own novel. But what makes the book truly stand out is the creation of the living, breathing world beneath the story. Blanchard invites us to imagine what that world might have been like, and what our legal system could be. While The Peacekeeper stands alone, readers will be eager to return to this world for a second look at Mino-Aki, to explore what other stories these lands hold.
Alana Joli Abbott is a reviewer and game writer, whose multiple choice novels, including Choice of the Pirate and Blackstone Academy for Magical Beginners, are published by Choice of Games. She is the author of three novels, several short stories and role playing game supplements, and edits fantasy anthologies for Outland Entertainment, including APEX: World of Dinosaurs and Bridge to Elsewhere. You can find her online at VirgilandBeatrice.com.