As you’d imagine from the title, bats are a key element in Zachary Thomas Dodson’s intricately constructed and elaborately illustrated debut. But the book’s real spirit animal is the ouroboros: a snake eating its own tail. Built as a novel within a novel, with supporting material in the form of letters and journal pages and drawings (all reproduced here as if photocopied from an archive), Bats of the Republic follows a pair of adventurous young men, several generations apart, on similar missions.
The first of these is Zeke Thomas, an heir to a senate seat in the citystate of Texas in the year 2143. The post-disaster world he lives in is strictly controlled, with communities organized around “life phases” in order to facilitate repopulation. Most historical documents were lost in whatever disaster befell the planet, so now there’s a recording-and-archiving system with creepy parallels to the modern world, a nod to the perils of ceding privacy to government in exchange for security. Zeke’s trouble begins with a letter he inherits that was never opened or properly archived—a criminal offense. Will he report it?
Back in 1843, Zadock Thomas—an ancestor to Zeke—also has a problem caused by a mysterious, unopened letter. Zadock works at Chicago’s new Museum of Flying and is in love with the daughter of the museum’s founder. But just as he’s about to propose, his boss sends him on a mission to deliver a letter to a storied general in the embattled republic of Texas. If he doesn’t get back in time—or at all—his beloved will be forced to marry his awful cousin. Naturally, Zadock encounters every possible obstacle, including a cave filled with bats that may or may not be related to the bats that live in the archive of the future world. Will he make it back home?
The stories circle around and fold into each other (in one instance, literally) to delightful and dizzying effect. Dodson is a book designer, and the book is subtitled “an illuminated novel.” The often elaborate design serves the story, underscoring the various narrative voices and timelines, as well as adding visual texture. It’s a pleasure to get lost here, though you might be glad the author includes a few maps.