What would it be like to suddenly be able to hear when you have been deaf from birth? To complicate matters further, what if you have grown up in a land of the deaf and among a people where the ability to hear has been lost for centuries? With no one to guide you, would sound even make sense to you? In Richelle Mead’s “Soundless,” this unexpected gift of hearing is just the first in a series of events that will challenge everything that Fei and her community believe about the world, but it also may be part of the key that will unlock their future.
Fei and her older sister Zhang Jing, like everyone they have ever known, are deaf. They are also part of an elite caste of artists who chronicle the life of their mountaintop village through calligraphy and the painting of daily scenes that are then hung in the center of town for all to see every morning.
Lately, though, many of those pictures have depicted great suffering among the people, as there is very little food available and more and more villagers are inexplicably going blind. Trapped by blocked passes and the threat of avalanches should they attempt to climb down from their lofty home, the villagers rely on a zip line for food and supplies from the township below in exchange for the metals they mine. However, as more and more workers lose their sight and resort to begging for a living, the community’s output of metal is decreasing, resulting in an increasing shortage of food.
In frustration and desperation, Fei and Li Wei, a handsome young miner, secretly attempt the dangerous climb down the mountain so they can try and reason with the line keeper. However, what they discover there will shake them to the core.
Mead departs radically from her more bloodthirsty tales of vampires and demons in a stand-alone novel set in ancient China that includes only a touch of fantasy. Fei is a strong and sympathetic heroine whose talent, courage, and willingness to do whatever it takes to save her people will appeal to a broad base of readers. Li Wei, Fei’s childhood friend and former sweetheart, also makes for a solid romantic lead. Unfortunately, as the plot is fairly straightforward and the book is relatively short, Mead does not take the time to truly develop either character to their full potential. We get glimpses of depth and interior struggles now and then, especially in Fei’s case, but are still left wanting more.
As for some of the supporting cast members, such as the scholarly Xiu Mei, her dishonored ex-soldier father, and the blond-haired, green-eyed foreigner Lu Zhu, their intriguing pasts are merely touched upon, leaving one with the frustration of a piqued but unquenched curiosity.
Still, Mead does give her readers a chance to dig below the surface somewhat by throwing a bone to those who know a bit of Chinese, even though without the presence of Chinese characters in the text the meanings of names and place names can only be assumed. For example, the land below the mountain is part of Beiguo, which in Chinese can mean “North Kingdom.” Xiu Mei can be translated as “graceful, pretty, and charming,” which are all good descriptions of the girl in the book. Similarly, Li Wei can be a combination of the Chinese characters for “strength” and “protect,” both of which describe Fei’s companion. Even Fei’s name could be a subtle take on her personality as one of its more common meanings is “to fly,” an apt description of a protagonist who soars above the rest. It might also be a nod to her connection with the legendary pixius, winged lion-like creatures from Chinese mythology who play a small but important role in the book.
Unlike the bulk of Mead’s other books, there is very little in her latest novel that Christian readers will find objectionable. Although there is the religious overlay of China’s ancient belief in evil spirits, the main characters do not buy into it. Nor are the pixiu seen as gods, which is definitely one way the story could have gone. Additionally, Fei and Li Wei resist various temptations that come their way, including sexual temptations, even though they are highly attracted to each other. Even alcohol is shunned in favor of tea in one scene. The absence of vulgarity is another point in the book’s favor, and even though there is some violence it is not terribly graphic.
In short, “Soundless” is a pleasant surprise. Even though the backstories of the characters and the world they inhabit are never fully revealed, the plot is engaging and enjoyable enough to make up for this lack. Rich with themes of self-sacrifice, unconditional love, and the overcoming of personal handicaps, Mead’s book is definitely worth reading.
Image copyright Razorbill. Review copy purchased from Hastings.
John E. Roper, in addition to his role as a missionary/pastor/teacher in Africa, has written for USA Today, the Arizona Republic, the Daily Oklahoman, the US Review of Books, and more.