This is a review by a finalist judge, so will focus more directly on summary. We hope you pick up this Cybil nominee, read, and enjoy!
Summary: Sixteen-year-old Ava is a dichotomy - living in a polygamous, patriarchal, rigidly gender-divided, hunter-gatherer tribe-style life... on a deep-space merchant trading ship called Parastrata. She's different from everyone else in her crewe as it is, because her father was from Mumbai, so her hair is black, not red like the rest, but her stepmother bleaches it, so she'll fit in. The "so" daughter of the ship - the Captain's child - she is the perfect age and bearing to become a bride - traded to another crew and another spaceship. Ava has perfected following the rules - but has such hopes, when she finds she is to be traded to the Aether, a ship on which lives her friend Soli, and Soli's brother, Luck. It is over Luck that Ava falls short of the perfection she once exhibited. Now having lost her value to her clan, she is declared dead. Only the timely intervention of a strong and determined auntie saves her -- and she is saved, time and again, by people who can see the big picture far more clearly than she can. When Ava finally finds her feet again, she is on Earth, in a future Mumbai, trying to find the last scrap of blood relatives she might have, desperate to try and keep her tiny adopted family - and her ship - and her life in balance.
Peaks: The language in the novel from the first lets the reader know that there's been some... shifting in attitudes and beliefs since modern times. Ava's archaic cant brings the feeling of a 19th century trader. The reader, expecting a traditional YA since we do have a girl lying prostrate in a floofy dress on the cover, is scrabbling for familiarity, but won't get any reassurance from Ava, anyway. She's a fish out of water within the first fifty pages. This is a good thing.
There are choices to be made - and the first is to choose to survive the explosive realization that her society is not the end-all, be-all and that there are other ways to live. This is a harder realization for many than others. I like that this is included and is something Ava has to consider. I like that her decisions about men are not either/or (despite a triangle thing), but "Is this what I want, or not?"
There is a lot of detail - which is why this is a very long book - a lot of landscape, knowledge of the way things work, and basically process -- processing everything from the simple questions of survival and "how do you learn to read" to how should a society function. The detail makes the book.
Valleys: Despite this book being quite a tome, I still felt like I was missing some information in basic world-building. Ava's lack of knowledge about even basic science is criminal, and a little terrifying. The reader is left constantly to wonder how this all happened. Why did the crewes initially board ships and go into orbit above Earth? Where they'd come from and who had they been before that event? What was the triggering event for downgrading of the status of women, and why did the women participate wholesale in their own disenfranchisement, striving to each be more perfectly downtrodden? What was behind their drive to obey? Why did they keep silent, still, with eyes lowered? On what cultish faith was their society based that has gone so heinously, so misogynistically off-base? We never get enough information on that, which is a real shame, because I found myself far more interested in questions of structure that mandated that life aboard the spacegoing, the lack of regulated social services, and basic education, etc. -- The women sitting, content, with not being able to read was unconscionable. Surely, if all they believed women were good for was work and bearing, they could be BETTER baby-machines with the ability to read and adequately care for their offspring? Ergh.
There's a lot of discussion about this book as feminist science fiction, but don't look for Ava to become self-actualized or in any way save herself until you're heading WELL toward the end of the book. She is saved, repeatedly, by others... over and over and over again, showing a lack of being the center of her own story, in some ways. Some may find her conversion to self-reliance a little choppy and unbelievable or too slow.
Conclusion: I truly liked this book, though I wanted more. If you enjoyed TIN STAR or ACROSS THE UNIVERSE or THE HANDMAID'S TALE, you will find enjoyment here. The gradual pacing of this five hundred plus page world epic will give readers an entire universe to discover and explore, and they will cheer for Ava's slow but sure growth toward selfhood.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of the Benicia Public Library. You can find SALVAGE by Alexandra Duncan at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!