Richelle Mead's Soundless opens on a mining village, nestled high in the mountains, fed and fueled by miners and suppliers and painted and documented by artists.
Fei is an artistic apprentice, helping to construct a large canvas every day that serves as a kind of report: the happenings, the weather, in calligraphic and painting form.
What makes the village unique, however, is how Soundless gets its title. For hundreds of years, no resident has possessed hearing, and no one speaks, ever--it might be so that Fei's village is soundless to even an outsider.
This presents a few challenges for the story right off the bat: sound must be excluded from imagery, there must be no spoken dialogue, and mead must find a way to create a working society that functions, for the most part, only on sight.
It's safe to say that Mead does this well: I can believe that this village could exist, and I can believe that it would function the way it does. I'd guess this is a result of establishing the known, non-magical world before our hero sets off on our journey.
For a while, we spend this time with Fei as she observes her post and wanders the Peacock Court (her home as an apprentice), and the story stays interesting because we're constantly learning here, and as we do, the stakes gradually get higher.
It goes from "I have to finish my painting" to "I have to help my sister keep her job so she doesn't starve" to, "oh, and our miners are going blind, which means the survival of the entire village is at stake."
The risks and issues everyone in Fei's village has to deal with (or Feice badum tsss) make for a compelling start, and everything in Fei's path as she sets out to aid is even more so.
I only wish the situation of "no verbal communication" had been more creatively used as an obstacle to Mead's usual style of storytelling. For the most part, all the gaps where quoted words would have been written are filled with only italicized words, sentences of sign language, and they're all pretty much the kind of character dialogue we're used to.
Also kind of missed in this context is the fact that it's necessary for only a small portion of the novel. After we've been introduced to Fei, her village and the conflict, we discover that she's just developed the ability to hear.
On the one hand, this kind of tosses the cool thing about Soundless: that it's supposed to be soundless. There's also the question of whether or not hearing is actually necessary. We could've followed Fei, her being deaf the whole time, and discovered that sound, this thing we all assume we can't live without, can actually be lived without. Plus, deaf characters aren't often protagonists in books, and getting one in a fantasy revolving around the concept of deafness would've just been plain cool.
On the other hand, Fei gaining her hearing is a catalyst of interesting narrative opportunities. Mead inarguably takes advantage of these, throwing the audience into an interesting experience of learning sound for the first time. Mead's acknowledgements mention how a linguistics professor aided her in writing about language acquisition (always read the acknowledgements, folks), something minute enough to partially be lost on the reader at first, but enough of a detail that it doesn't go over your head once you think about Soundless for a while. (Or, in my case, left with nothing to do at a brunch place for about two hours, reread nearly the whole thing.)
Observing auditory sensation from an unexposed perspective is, in a good way, jarring, and ends up being a well-utilized tool in adding something new to the necessary scenes of re-introduction and--ugh--negotiation.
But, even in those necessarily boring moments, Soundless retains a sense of adventure. Though Soundless is definitely unique, it's still, at the core, a classic hero's journey. What you would think of when you think of "adventure."
The most famous elements are easily recognized, the call to adventure being Li Wei's brave pledge as a result of his father's death. The threshold is reimagined as the face of a cliff. The belly of the best is the realization that the kind uses the village simply as a supplier of metal, despite the danger, by keeping them all starved. The threshold is once again crossed when Fei and her fellow citizens return to a new normal, Fei richer for her acquired knowledge and the goal achieved through outsmarting and defeating the enemy.
The problems resulting becomes the application of this hero's journey as a whole, which could be argued as lacking.
Don't get me wrong, the hero's journey is a set formula for excellent stories. When used to good result, any film, book, or story otherwise told can be made into a legend. But the catch is that you tend to have two options: you can copy it to a T, complete with spiritual aid and the goddess' reward, or you can twist it and subvert it until the connection is no longer obvious.
Soundless does neither of those thing. It follows the hero's journey to a generalized degree. But it subverts it as well, though in weak ways. The "final fight" at the end is hardly a fight on Fei's part, her mentor is barely involved, and she returns from home before her metaphorical journey is actually complete. (These might all be intentional, but from a standpoint of an English student, they just seem like things Mead couldn't get around to better fit the hero's journey.)
I'm aware that these things could be dubbed worthy and skillful changes. But your fantasy doesn't have a perfect effect when only modified moderately. Its mystical power is dulled. (Tip: when your reader is expecting a proper battle, it's in your best interest to give them a proper battle.)
Which brings me to a miner flaw: it gets quite dull, at certain moments. The venture to the other side of Beiguo to meet other villagers isn't that exciting, nor are some moments during Li Wei & Fei's time in the forest. I suppose the last half of the novel fares well, but we spend a whole lot of time lingering and observing the town longer than is necessary.
The tools that apply to your exposition won't stick for your rising action, or, and oh god, this was so close to happening, your climax.
Thankfully, the dullness doesn't weigh the story down completely.
But the romance is steeped in it.
I find Fei's relationship with her childhood friend, Li Wei, to be similar to the romance between Katniss and Peeta in The Hunger Games, which I first loved, but later rolled my eyes at upon further reading. It's just boring. I'm not sure what else I should add. Do I have bad taste in romance? I'm aromantic, so it's a possibility. Is it a product of other writing just appealing to me more? I guess. Have I been spoiled by the opportunity to explore darker parts of the human psyche and now just find idea, healthy relationships in fiction to be boring? I wouldn't know. Tumblr definitely would, but I don't.
For now, let's just leave it at "Fei & Li Wei are too tame for me."
Move on? Move on.
The main reason I wouldn't slap "dull" on the whole novel is the fact that there are some excellent, tense moments.
Two in particular come to mind: the bar/inn scene where Li Wei wins a bet, and the part where they both stumble upon an abandoned village much like theirs halfway down the mountain.
The inn scene is a perfect example of interpersonal tension at its finest. The wager, both literal and will-the-guards-catch-us-wise, is almost palpable here, and the payoff is short, sweet, and an effective introduction of an in-story device. The red silk dress is a good choice for a few reasons: it holds the weight of Beiguo's comparative wealth, it becomes Li Wei's moniker of his brashness and willingness to take a chance, and it's visually the strongest association we get out of the novel; whenever I think of Soundless, I think of Fei's bright red silk dress. The inn sequence also succeeds as a break of sorts: the enemy is still hot on our hero's tails, but for a moment, we have a mini-narrative that connects, has the same risk on a large scale, but has a different short-term risk, a different thing for us to worry about and anticipate if only for one short scene. The thing: whether or not Li Wei ends up winning the bet.
On a different scale, the other scene, where Fei and Li Wei discover the remains of another village on their way to the valley, is just as attention grabbing in a more punctuation, and dread-filled way. Everything about this scene: the astounded hope at the beginning, the slow, trickling realization, the description of the skeletons and frozen life of the place, and the final rush of fear, is beautifully and effectively written. The most poignant part of the scene is where Fei pauses, and puts together the pieces, wondering if her village will fall to this same fate, and how exactly it will happen as she watches, aware, yet helpless. It has echoes of the Moria scene in The Fellowship of the Ring, the past creeping up to the present in a suspenseful and exciting way.
The climax, despite its lack of straight-up formal battle, is exciting as well. But it pinpoints a flaw that detracts from the arc: the pixius. We know Soundless is meant to feature magic, but it's literal myth at the beginning, and it's brought back as basically a hail mary at the end. A key part of the payoff is missing. When you introduce an element of the story, you tell the audience about it (it doesn't matter if it isn't considered 'real' yet), you remind the audience of it later (clears throat), and finally pay it off at the end. Problem is, the pixius, or any notable mentions of them, are all but absent through the entire middle of Soundless. Come on, Richelle Mead, rule of threes, you should know this!
I'm not going to lie, though, the imagery used to describe the pixius at the end is nothing short of gorgeous. Even if the pixius didn't work, I'd probably be guilt of lumping them in anyway, just because they're so goddamn pretty.
But Soundless isn't lacking in goddamn pretty stuff, which makes sense, considering the fact that it's narrated from the perspective of an artist. I'm going to cheat, partially, and go back to the always-mentioned-in-reviews bit at the beginning, where Fei just passes at her post and gazes at orchids. That description is just straight-up beautiful. Fei's always mentioning how she'd paint things like that had she possessed the resources, and i'm like, "well, dang, I'll sponsor you; I just gotta see that shit!" 'Cause that's the best part of Soundless. If any book could be categorized as 'literal fucking painting,' this is it. Moral of the story: always use an artist to narrate it.