March 29, 2016

Turning Pages Reads: SOUNDLESS by Richelle Mead

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!


Long ago, Fei's community of hearing impaired people was cut off from others by a huge rockslide. Their mining community continued to mine, and to send down their wealth of metals via zipline to the village below. People never used the zipline, because it was deemed that people were too heavy, but materials could go down, and food for the village could come up. Intermittently. The villagers up the mountain are in dire straits, but their straitened circumstances are underscored by their Elders' insistence that some of the community paint a record of their lives. These artists receive high status, more food, and better clothing. The miners are given much less food, but must do manual labor... The miners are kept on the edge of starvation, and as the generations pass, these hearty mountain people begin to develop the symptoms of blindness. Fei and her sister are born deaf, as are most of their generation, and only the very oldest and frailest remember sound. However, the alarming trend towards losing sight is treated with panic and shamed silence. Those visually impaired and hearing impaired now live as beggars on the fringes of society, a society already too impoverished to adequately feed itself, and utterly dependent on those down in the valley. The rocky mountain outcropping where they live has little or no game, and poor soil for farming. Everything depends on the miners, their metals being sent down the mountain, and the village's rigid adherence to the way things are.

Fei, a favorite of the Elders, does as she is told; respecting the betrothal the Elders have arranged for her, and only admiring Wei, a sturdy miner boy who is outspoken and decisive, in secret. Her life changes when one night something awakens her -- a sound, in a world where there had been none. Holding her mysterious cure close to herself, Fei is stunned by the awakening of new senses -- and horrified as her sister's hold on vision begins to slip away. When Fei learns of Wei's plan to climb down the dangerous rockslide to the valley below to get help for their village. she is eager to help - it's the only way to save her sister. Wei and Fei slip away from their village in secret, but it turns out that the truth they find down the mountain is the biggest - and most destructive - secret of all.

Observations: I was intrigued that this book was about a village of people with full hearing loss. The challenges and solutions in that community alone would have been worth exploring. I was initially disappointed that Fei's hearing loss magically vanishes less than a third of the way into the book... and I guess that this magical intervention felt necessary to the author, but I didn't find that there was much the character could do with her hearing that she couldn't do otherwise, except be the hero of the day and "prove" the existence of the paranormal. I wish the author had made a different choice that didn't disrespect the abilities and cunning prowess of a person with hearing impairment. She could still have saved the day without hearing anything.

I also found it difficult to suspend my disbelief that no one built a larger zipline down to the valley, in all the years that the village had abruptly gone deaf. Surely it's ridiculous that no one had taken it upon themselves to, little by little, year by year, clear away the rockslide which had cut off the village. It would be one thing if they had all they needed up top, but being dependent on foodstuff and etc., from a mysterious kingdom and people who felt they had the right to punish them by adjusting their food deliveries -- I cannot imagine an entire village of passive people with only Wei somehow active and filled with righteous indignation. ...Really? How? Why? So many questions.

I came to this book with few preconceptions. It was a random library pick-up and I read no reviews or buzz beforehand. However, knowing that Richelle Mead isn't Chinese, I was prepared to be both more interrogative and less ...expectant of the narrative in terms of how the protagonist's ethnic heritage was handled. I'm inclined to say that while the novel wasn't saturated with Chinese culture in extensive world-building, language usage and cultural behaviors, neither did it overshoot the mark, as so many authors do when writing about a culture not their own, and indulge in fetishism. On the other hand, I asked myself, "What did it add, that this novel was set in China?" A specific type of paranormal entity, and... not a lot else. When asking the question, does this interpretation of Chinese culture harm or benefit both Chinese and non-Chinese readers? the answer kind of weighs on the side of negative, for me. Simple omissions, from character names to the cover model to an apparently shallow understanding, by the characters themselves, of pixiu, all these things and more seemed to point to cursory research and not taking positive advantage of the full and rich smorgasbord of diversity for which the setting allowed. This was unfortunate.

Conclusion: Fans of Richelle Mead may enjoy this lightweight, fast-paced standalone full of the usual adventure tropes, including a monsters, daring escapes from harrowing danger, and decisions based on true love alone. Add a sprinkle of imaginary ancient China and stir: instant beach read. Readers may be better served by enjoying Cindy Pon's Kingdom of Xia series, which is a story full of Chinese folklore that includes more narrative ambiguity and richer details of culture and language.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the public library. You can find SOUNDLESS by Richelle Mead at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

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