Bats of the Republic is a wonderfully original debut novel by Zachary Thomas Dodson. Billed as “an illuminated novel,” it is a remarkable physical object with gorgeous maps, illustrations and even a sealed envelope that holds the key to the novel’s conclusion. But Bats of the Republic is not gimmicky—the storytelling is every bit as strong as the visual layout.
This book is exceedingly difficult to categorize. It is an epistolary novel, with the story told through a series of documents, including letters, two novels-within-a-novel and conversation transcripts recorded by a futuristic surveillance state. The genre might be described as Weird Western crossed with Steampunk, but with characters and storylines that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Jane Austen novel. It’s a bizarre brew, but it works.
Two major narratives make up Bats of the Republic. The first, set in 1843, is the story of Zadock Thomas, a man of modest means, and his efforts to court Elswyth Gray, the daughter of his employer, Joseph Gray. Mr. Gray directs the Museum of Flying in Chicago and hopes for his daughters Elswyth and Louisa to climb the social ladder by marrying up. Zadock is not quite what he has in mind, but he offers the young man a chance to prove himself—or perhaps to get him out of the way—by delivering a mysterious letter to General Irion, a freebooter operating out of the Republic of Texas, a briefly independent country between its 1836 independence from Mexico and its 1846 annexation by the United States.
Zadock’s tale largely comes through his letters, as well as his sketches of wildlife, which occasionally cross over into the fantastic with jackalope and el chupacabra sightings. Elswyth tells her own story in an autobiographical novel of manners called The Sisters Gray, which describes the efforts of Zadock and his scheming co-worker Bartholomew Buell to court her, as well as Louisa’s pending societal debut. Excerpts of The Sisters Gray, looking very much like scanned copies of a three-hundred-year-old text, appear throughout Bats of the Republic.
Elswyth’s late mother and her Aunt Anne are connected to the mysterious Order of the Auspex. Before her death, Mrs. Gray wrote a prophetic science fiction novel called The City-State, which tells the story of Zeke Thomas, a descendent of Zadock, and Eliza Gray, whose surname indicates her orphan status, not any relationship with Elswyth.
This second novel-within-a-novel is set in 2143 and presents the kind of futuristic world a writer in 1843 might imagine. High technology consists of advanced forms of steam power and cannons. Following the Collapse, the surviving population of the United States reorganized into the Republics of the National Alliance, seven city-states with each one devoted to a different life phase. As young adults, Zeke and Eliza live in Silver-City, Texas. If the two pair, as expected, they will move to the Twin-City (formerly of Minnesota). If not, they will move on to Atlantas (formerly of Georgia), the city of unmarried singles and those referred to as “Queers.”
In an effort to preserve knowledge of the civilization that came before, the Senate of the National Alliance ordered carbons made of all documents to be stored in the Vault. Over time, this edict evolved into a mandate to record everything—including conversations—for storage and review by government authorities. This surveillance takes a very 1843 form, however—human Recorders sitting at typowriters transcribe what they hear through listening devices.
In addition to The City-State, the 2143 story comes from letters from Eliza’s long-lost father (which make reference to The Sisters Gray) and surveillance transcripts. It begins with the death of Zeke’s grandfather and the likelihood that Zeke will inherit the family’s Senate seat over his scheming cousin Bic. In his grandfather’s inheritance bundle, Zeke received a sealed envelope—perhaps the same one Zadock was to deliver to General Irion three hundred years before—containing a document that had never been carbon’d. Possession of such contraband brings Zeke into the crosshairs of Major Daxon, head of the Law in Texas and a man with greater ambitions.
I have one quibble, and it’s a small one. The society of 2143 depends upon a mysterious substance called fount-water that has both nutritive and curative properties. The Auspices—members of the same mystical order as Elswyth’s Aunt Anne in 1843—play an important role in its production. Yet the first mention of fount-water doesn’t occur until almost the halfway point of the book, which belies its significance. But in fairness, it took a microscope to find even one flaw in this work.
Dodson masterfully weaves the thread of Zadock and Elswyth in 1843 with the possibly-fictitious thread of Zeke and Eliza in 2143. Each plotline echoes and illuminates the other. The outcome of both threads remains in doubt until the very end, when the reader gets the opportunity to literally open the envelope that sits at the heart of this novel. And even then, mysteries remain, for the best stories are the ones that continue running through your head long after the book has been returned to its shelf.