Quick review for a really sluggish read. Honestly, I had no idea what to expect when picking up Richelle Mead's "Soundless". Considering how upset I was over the bigotry presented in "The Glittering Court" - I almost completely passed over this. I'm now glad I didn't because it was better than I thought it would turn out to be - and I enjoyed the story when taking it for the bare bones of its aim. However, "Soundless" isn't really representative of Richelle Mead's best work either - and I'm actually disappointed in terms of how such an intriguing premise (based on Chinese folklore, female protagonist who rises up to challenges to protect her people in something of a dystopian realm, some interesting supernatural/fantastical elements that showed up far too late in the narrative) could've had such poor execution.
I'll mention one thing that bothers me right off the bat before I dive into the heart of this review. Considering that the country of China is NOT ONCE mentioned in the body of text in this book gives me pause. You would not know it was based in China if not going by the blurb or descriptions surrounding this book, because the elements of the book (besides certain names) don't really frame it specific to the culture. I know it's supposed to be based off Chinese folklore (as of the writing of this review, I'm not sure of the specific tale(s) that inspired this - and I'm curious to know) but the way the story skirts around the setting and details of this world is bare bones at best. It wasn't immersive; that's disappointing considering one of Mead's prime strengths is worldbuilding. It would've been awesome to dive into the setting, the aspects of the culture, what made this village the way it was. I also felt that the depiction of characters in this book was shortchanged on many counts.
Fei's an artist/recordkeeper in her village under a rather strict caste system (Artists, Miners and Suppliers). Food and other supplies are sent to their village in the mountains based on the precious metals the miners are able to get. But the downside is that all of the villagers are deaf, and some are becoming blind no one knows the cause for (this is later explained in the narrative). Li Wei is Fei's childhood friend, sort of estranged lover since Fei's in an arranged marriage scenario (that focus gets tossed by the wayside after a while in the book, though. Very obvious who Fei ends up with at the end of the book.) After a tragic set of events, Li Wei decides to leave the village in search of the truth and better prospects since their village supplies are getting cut back more and more, and people are continuing to suffer under a hand they know nothing about. Fei decides to go with him, sacrificing her high status in society and contributing one key thing that Li Wei doesn't have - hearing. Yes, Fei miraculously regains her hearing for a reason the reader doesn't know in the initial parts of the story. (I guessed it was a TCO thing from the very beginning, so this didn't surprise me.)
Fei and Li Wei brave the descent down the steep mountain to discover the truth of things and the iron fist of the people that are controlling the information surrounding their society, so it's up to them to try to return back and tell their fellow villagers (and Fei's sister, who is quickly losing her vision) the truth of things and search for a better way of life/fight against their oppressors. You would think this would be an action packed and tense scenario story based on those descriptions, right?
This story was hampered greatly by sluggish pacing and cringe-worthy romantic interludes that had more focus than the actual structure of the story. I mean, as much as I can appreciate gestures of affection and noting physical attractive factors between LIs in a story, when you shortchange the building of the society, the conflict of the narrative, and potential folklore expansion with paragraphs describing Fei noticing how Li Wei looks shirtless? Not here for that. The romance was far too forced through this narrative for me to believe in it.
I struggled to get through this narrative given how bare bones the presentation was. It really wasn't even a long novel, just felt long with the way the story was presented. I only had a surface level of connection with the characters, world, scenario, etc. I mean, the bare bones of the story was good, but it felt so lacking compared to the worlds that have been built in Mead's other works. I think the only reason I was able to keep focused and motivated in this was the audio narration by Kim Mai Guest, who did a good job with the voice of the character and infusing emotion/tension in the novel where it might've been more dry reading the regular text.
The story pulls a semi-Deus-Ex-Machina ending where things work out for the villagers and certain plot points get resolved (also the story turns from distinctly dystopian to fantasy once that change comes about). I would've appreciated if some of that folklore had been woven into the story much earlier than being tagged on in the final chapters, because it was the one point in the story where I felt like this had a distinct identity and intrigue compared to other dystopian/fantasy works. Why it wasn't incorporated through the entire novel, I have no clue, but I wanted more time to sink my teeth into the lore than it just being a convenient plot point dropped at the end of things.
Nonetheless, I'll say there were so many missed opportunities in this novel, much of which made it longer, more boring and tedious than it had to be. I'm giving it the benefit of the doubt, but considering this could've asserted itself so much more with the characters being blind/deaf, taking place in another culture, having an introverted heroine who stands up for her people, and having elements of Chinese folklore - it was very disappointing. So many points of intrigue, but poor execution. I think Mead can do better than this.
Overall score: 3/5 stars.