Thank you to NetGalley and Inkyard Press for sending me a free advanced reader copy of this book for an honest review. The Sound of Stars debuted February 25th.
Apologies in advance that this review borders on a rant, but I feel a compulsion to fully express myself. Could be I get some anger for this post–I guess that’s just the risk you run sometimes.
If there’s one thing that can be said about The Sound of Stars, it’s that it doesn’t try to hide what it is. I was pretty excited to read this book–I mean, hello, I’m writing an alien romance, and this book is an alien romance–but from the very first paragraph I could predict this book would be a struggle due to its strong ideological bent.
The invasion came when we were too distracted raging against our governments to notice. Terror had a face and we elected it, my mom said. We were more divided than ever, and that division made our defeat easy.
Listen, I’m not saying that politics doesn’t have a place in books–if politics fit the plot, by all means have at it. However, this book (which is a YA alien romance, remember) is so steeped in progressive and leftist ideology that it’s not far off from propagandistic. In fact, as I read some passages aloud to my husband, he even asked me if it might be parody. (It’s not.) To give one example, Janelle, the MC, suffers from anxiety and frequently employs a counting technique to calm herself.
Five, Tamir Rice, Heather Heyer, Emmett Till, Oscar Grant, Nia Wilson. Four, little church girls, Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley. Three, Tree of Life. Christchurch. Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Two, people out shopping, Maurice Stallard and Vicki Lee Jones. One, so many–too many–black transgender women to name.
Nobody is going to convince me that the above is good writing. Am I really supposed to believe that all that is going through her head while she’s warding off a panic attack? It’s like some bizarre leftist take on Arya Stark’s kill list.
Let’s go more in depth about the main character as well. Janelle is black, bisexual, “demi-ace,” overweight, with a thyroid problem, and diagnosed depression and anxiety. All of that is okay, of course.
Can you hear the “but” coming? I have a real issue with the current push for “representation” in books, because it has ruined many, many characters for me. Often it feels like authors, especially in the YA world, throw statuses and traits onto their characters like stickers, as if to tick off items on a checklist. I want to have all types of characters in books, but I want those characters to appear organically, rather than just so the author can triumphantly proclaim, Oprah-like, “Ah-ha, here is a person of color, and here is the LGBT character, and here is the character with a medical diagnosis!” So with an MC like Janelle, I found myself reading her characterization as basically a marketing strategy rather than anything that enhanced the book. Is that way of thinking fair to all the characters out there who are LGBT, suffering from various diagnoses, etc? No, but that is the sad place where the “representation” push has led me, and I’m willing to bet a lot of money that others feel the same. The whole thing is a catch-22.
So when it came to understanding Janelle, she felt incredibly surface-level, as if she had been designed by Tumblr committee, or perhaps Vice’s dildo-firing squad.
And setting character aside, the plot and the world-building weren’t gripping enough to get me to forgive all the politics. It’s a pretty standard aliens-taking-over-the-world story, and the tech wasn’t cohesive; it came across to me as magical hocus-pocus instead of futuristic technology that sorta-kinda made sense.
There is a cringiness to this book, too, that would not let up. The MC loves reading, especially YA, and there was all sorts of name-dropping that crossed the line from referential into self-congratulation. It gave me a strong “breaking the fourth wall” type of feeling.
I wonder if that’s how Wylan felt when he finally kissed Jesper, or Dimple and Rishi’s first–no, second–kiss…
Pair all that with many new world-building concepts being thrown in at the eighty percent mark of the book. Pair it again with a deus ex machina. Then add on unrelenting and awkward progressivism. (The alien love interest cannot tell if a human is a man or a woman, for example, until they identify themselves… Oh, but he can easily suss out that Janelle is a girl in the beginning of the book by her name alone. Hmm…)
Well, this was just a really tough sell.
I constantly found myself wondering while reading what an author of a book this political would say if she knew a conservative woman was reading–a conservative woman who, by the way, has not hesitated in the past to read and praise books with a differing ideological lens. I don’t necessarily write off books just because I don’t see eye-to-eye with the author’s politics. Would the author of The Sound of Stars be disgusted by someone like me, who just wanted to read a new-to-market trad-pub alien romance? Or would she not even suspect readers like me exist at all? Hopefully it would be neither one of those extremes, because both are very disheartening.
I remain a reader desperate for well-written alien books, especially alien romance. I was betrayed by aliens last year, twice, and I feel yet again extremely disappointed. (The Humans was great, to be fair.) I am begging the universe–please let the next alien book I read be good. And if there are any authors reading this post, please try to understand that readers like me exist and don’t hate me for it.