Review of Sound by Alexandra Duncan
by Alexandra Duncan
I didn’t realize I only read one book between Salvage and Sound, but hey, that’s how time goes in the summer. I’m working through the summer again, so not as much time to sit outside and read—much sadness!
Sound is a companion novel to Salvage. It follows Miyole, Parastrata Ava’s adopted sister. A few years have gone by, and Miyole is now sixteen (though people think she is seventeen). She has sped through her schooling, thanks to her smarts, and wrangled her way aboard a Deep Sound Research Institute (DSRI) expeditionary vessel with a fake ID claiming she is eighteen. Miyole is all about going into space.
Then she throws it away for a girl. Typical.
There is an interesting symmetry already between Sound and Salvage, with Miyole running towards space after Ava had refuge from it. However, I want to make it clear that you don’t need to read one novel to understand the other, nor do you really need to read them in order (although obviously if you read this one you’ll have a few spoilers for how Salvage ends). The novels are independent of one another. I do like that we get a glimpse at Ava and Rushil a few years on, that we see how Ava has adapted to life on Earth and started to make a name for herself helping other crewe girls leave the ships and gain independence. This was a nice way for Alexandra Duncan to provide a coda to that story without writing another whole novel for Ava.
Miyole is a whole different girl, of course, and it’s nice to see that. She has a reflexive anti-bullshit detector, and that gets her in trouble with the brass. On a ship where propriety and class are important, Miyole is a cipher to some and a thorn in the side of others. She gets treated like a prep school brat by the fighter jocks and a foreigner by the mostly-Indian senior crew, despite Miyole growing up in Mumbai and considering herself a Mumbaikar. Watching her grapple with the reality of the DSRI mission versus what she thought it would be is very entertaining. But this doesn’t last long: soon Duncan has Miyole throwing away everything she ever wanted to help a girl get back her cousin.
Sound moves much faster than Salvage and is, for me at least, far more satisfying for it. Miyole doesn’t stay still, so neither does the plot. From the Ranganathan to Ceres to Enceladus, Miyole, Cassia, and Rubio have more than their fair share of adventure. (Speaking of Rubio, did anyone else have trouble not thinking of Marco Rubio? I mean they’re both super abrasive.) There’s even a deep-“sea” diving scene, which although kind of shoehorned in, is also really, really cool. And while Miyole uncomfortably treads the line of being a Mary Sue on occasion, she screws up enough to avoid succumbing to such a label.
In particular, I love how her relationships with the other characters shift throughout the novel. Rubio, her kind-of nemesis, starts to come round to her. They discover something that is all-too-easy to forget: hey, the other person also has feelings and a history! Miyole isn’t just a preppy foreign girl high on privilege; Rubio isn’t just an ignorant jackass made of testosterone and bravado. Turns out they each have histories and their own problems, and though sometimes they are like oil and water, they manage to work well together and start respecting one another. I love that.
Similarly, Cassia and Miyole’s relationship is fascinating, from the way Duncan portrays the initial attraction to where it ultimately ends up. I love that this is not a typical “head-over-heels but doomed and tragic” romance. Instead, they act like actual people; notably, once the heat of the moment has passed, the cracks start to show. While I’m sad that they don’t end up together, I find the ending all the more enjoyable for its feeling of authenticity: yes, maybe they are attracted to one another and maybe they would even make a good couple, but circumstances just aren’t right, at least not right now. And that is so, so true of life (or at least I assume it is, not that I have any experience of my own to go on).
I’m tired of fiction, and particularly young adult fiction, throwing OTPs at us (or worse, love triangles) and expecting us to believe that these two teenagers are Destined to Be Together. Duncan shows that it’s OK to be attracted, OK to consider loving another person, but that it is also OK if the relationship doesn’t go anywhere. Indeed, Miyole is still so young at the end of this; she has so much more left to experience in her life. This is not the end of her adventures, whether or not she ends up in another novel. (I’m not too obviously pleading for a sequel, am I?)
As with Salvage, there are some deeper cuts to this story to talk about issues like slavery and other injustices. One of my criticisms of the other book was how the wider world was very indistinct; we never got a good sense of political structures, technology level, etc. Duncan fixes this with Sound: someone can grow ships that can then be sent out on these expeditions to other places in the solar system. The DSRI, we learn, is the closest thing there is to an authority off-planet, and even it doesn’t have all that much pull. It really is a kind of lawless frontier, as Miyole and Cassia soon discover. I just knew the moment they discovered Nethanel among all those others on Enceladus that they had problems, because it’s not like they could just break Nethanel out and leave everyone else to toil away (or get punished in their place).
There are times when the plot tries one’s patience. As I mentioned above, the deep-sea diving/hunting expedition is awesomely executed but feels out of place. Similarly, while I like the ending, it is all a little too convenient. There is a sense of purpose here that was missing from parts of Salvage, which makes the story feel much more unified. Yet as much as I liked the setting, the characters, the social commentary, it doesn’t quick strike me as all that innovative. Rather, Duncan takes a lot of stuff we’ve seen elsewhere and just combines it in an interesting way to tell a good story. This is ultimately an adventure tale.
That’s not something to be dismissed lightly, mind you. This is a YA novel featuring a Haitian girl who was raised in India—oh, and she is lesbian. We need more fiction like this, but more importantly, we need it to be good (because otherwise people inevitably complain about token diversity and “quotas”, as if there is something wrong with an author deliberately casting her characters in different races and sexualities). And Sound is both diverse and good.
I kind of get the feeling Duncan is just getting started, too. Salvage was OK; Sound is really quite good—what will she do next??
Did I mention I want more of Miyole? No? I haven’t mentioned this at all, you say? Well I do.