Sound by Alexandra Duncan

Before I get into this, I want to say that I read the novel and wrote this post before I heard about the controversy surrounding Alexandra Duncan’s novel, Ember Days. I am planning on commenting on it in the future, but this post is just about her novel Sound. 

After reading some pretty heavy stuff, I wanted to try something a bit lighter. I chose Sound by Alexandra Duncan, a standalone novel in her Salvage series. According to the description on Amazon, Salvage was praised as, “brilliant, feminist science fiction” that would appeal to fans of Firefly and Battlestar Galactica. I like all of those things, so I eagerly dove into Sound.

I really wanted to like this book. But I couldn’t.

It has everything I would normally love: strong female characters, a well thought-out and unique sci-fi setting, and a protagonist with PTSD who overcomes her fears to save the day. It’s well-written, and I sped through the first five chapters. But the main character, Miyole, makes a choice that drove me crazy, and I could never quite reconcile with it. Spoilers below.

Sound opens on Miyole, a sixteen-year-old research assistant on board a Deep Sound Research Institute (DSRI) spaceship. She researches pollinators like butterflies and bees for the purpose of terraforming and colonizing other planets. Right away I like the opening, how it centers on the small things in science fiction that you wouldn’t normally think about. Her ship is also organic and grown, made of of self-healing nacre. I love the idea of biological ships, and it’s an idea I’ve only seen used in a few sci-fi stories.

I also loved how much detail and thought was put into this story’s universe. A filthy, abandoned space station, or a city built of spindles under the sea of Encladeus. Like the need for pollinators, small aspects of life in space make the setting memorable.

The story really begins after a ship crashes into the Raganathon, the DSRI ship Miyole lives and works on. Pirates have attacked a trader vessel, and the survivors of the attack are taken on board the Raganathon. The survivors are a teenager named Cassia, her niece, and their cat. Cassia’s brother has been captured by the pirates, and likely sold into slavery. Cassia wants the DSRI ship to give chase and find her brother, but they refuse. They can’t change their entire course and mission for one person, who’s unlikely to be found. Cassia is furious about this, and Miyole is frustrated by her commander’s lack of action.

Working together – and accidentally taking the pilot Rubio along with them – Miyole and Cassia steal a shuttle and set out to save her brother.

It sounds really exciting, but this was the point where the book started getting really frustrating for me. Since she was twelve, Miyole’s dream was to join the DSRI, which is incredibly selective, and only launches new missions every few years. She had to be at least 18 to apply for a position with the DSRI, and she’s only sixteen. Desperate to be aboard the next mission, Miyole enlists her brother-in-law’s help to hack into government databases and change her birth year. This is a very dangerous and illegal thing to do. If Miyole gets caught, it’s not just the end of her career. It would also ruin her life, and the lives of her brother-in-law and his wife.

Stealing a shuttle and (more or less) kidnapping a pilot is going to land her in some serious trouble, and authorities looking closely at her records. But she doesn’t think about any of this, or consider the consequences until more than two-thirds of the way through the book.

I know that every story needs a jumping-off point, and this is where the adventure really begins. There’s some justification for it: Miyole’s  frustrated by DSRI’s inaction, and she has a crush on Cassia. But after seeing how much risk she took just to apply to the DSRI, and how much she wanted this job, I wanted to see more than that.

At one point in the book, Cassia is badly injured, and may not survive. I actually hoped that she would die, because then Miyole would be caught in space. If the person she risked her life and career for was gone, what would she do? Would she keep going to find Cassia’s brother, or return to DSRI with her tail between her legs? Or something else entirely? I would have loved to see how Miyole would justify leaving everything behind for Cassia, only for her to die.

But, Cassia lives, and the story continues.

The novel has the overarching plot of rescuing Cassia’s brother, and it’s tied together by a string of different adventures. Sometimes it felt like each step they took on their journey could be its own short story. Along with an eerie, abandoned space station, they have to deal with Cassia’s shady contacts, carbon dioxide poisoning, space pirates, alien monsters, and being enslaved themselves before they reach their goal. There were a lot of cool, detailed settings, especially the seas of Encladeus.

My main problem with this book was the characters. We first meet Cassia after she’s taken aboard the DSRI ship, so we don’t get to see what she’s like when she feels comfortable. Cassia is angry. She’s a cold survivalist, and will do whatever it takes to get her brother back, including murdering others. That’s where Cassia starts, and that’s where she stays. She has so few redeeming qualities I could never actually bring myself to like her. Miyole falls for her though, and likes her enough to steal a shuttle.

So when Cassia breaks Miyole’s heart, Miyole could very well be left with nothing. No career, not future, and not even a girlfriend to explore the stars with.

Since I chose this book from the #1000BlackGirlBooks list, I feel like I can’t end this entry without talking about race. Miyole is Haitian, but grew up in Mumbai after her home “the Gyre” was destroyed during a hurricane. She survived the hurricane, but her mother was killed, and Miyole was left with physical and psychological scars. Miyole’s mother made sure her daughter knew about her Haitian heritage, particularly the slave rebellion. It’s a source of strength for her, as is the memory of her mother. She often wonders if she can be as brave as her mother.

I am sad to report, though, that racial prejudice will still exist in the future. Miyole doesn’t really fit in with her Indian friends, which is one of the reasons she wants to get off the planet. Her accidental traveling companion, Rubio, also refers to her as “memsahib”, much to her annoyance. There’s still a decent amount of “othering”, even aboard the DSRI ship, but it’s largely microaggressions. As the story progresses and Rubio travels with Miyole and Cassia, he does learn the error of his ways and changes accordingly.

There was a lot to like about Sound, but unfortunately for me, I had a hard time getting into it. Even so, I may check out Sound‘s preceding novel, Salvage, which focuses on Miyole’s adoptive family.

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