Review – Silence by Michelle Sagara

Ok, so it’s a new adult novel.

— Alright, I like those.

An urban fantasy.

— Cool.

Set in Toronto.

— Good

On the topic of how the support of a strong community can help somebody cope with grief.

— Nice, I like it.

And it’s all about psychopomps and necromancers.

— Shut up and take my money.

Silence is the first book in the Queen of the Dead series by Michelle Sagra. I’ll be honest, I do enjoy reviewing books by local authors, because I like reading books by local authors, and so when I recently came across Sagara’s first book I jumped at the opportunity much faster than some much more well known new adult books that I’ve not gotten around to.

The fact that this book was not a dystopia also played into my interest in reading it. As much as I like dystopian fiction (I do read a fair bit of the stuff) it is nice to see a book that took a different approach.

Now for the most part I want to talk about what’s good with this book, because it’s mostly very good. I do have one tiny little complaint though, so I want to get that out of the way up front.

The middle of the book has a small problem: the protagonist is largely in the dark, and a character shows up who knows precisely what’s going on. But he straight up refuses to provide any exposition for several chapters, with repeated conversations where the protagonist says, “tell me what’s going on, because this situation makes very little sense,” and him replying, “no,” or alternatively finding a fortuitous distraction to avoid having to disclose any exposition.

This carries on somewhat too long, and by the time the weirdness around the edges of the story boil over to the point that OTHER characters start providing the exposition that Mr. Mysterious straight up refuses to, I kind of wanted to punch him. A lot. And he’s supposed to be one of the good guys.

But that’s a moderately minor quibble, and with a good setup, a solid third act and, Mr. Mysterious aside, an exceptional cast, I’d definitely recommend this to anybody interested in new adult fantasy fiction.

So let’s talk about why then.

Finally a book that isn’t about how awful cliques are

A common feature of a lot of new adult books lately seems to be clique as source of tension. Whether it’s the Cullens against the other vampires in Twilight, the various factions of Divergent or the districts of the Hunger Games, social organizations of more than three people almost always seem to become engines driving conflict. Of course, considering the preponderance of love triangles in new adult fiction, even social groupings of three people can become engines of conflict, but that’s another issue altogether.

Now high school wasn’t wonderful for me. I was a weird kid. I read a lot, was wordy, played with religions the way other kids played with musical identities.

At school I gravitated in loops and whorls toward a small collection of drama, music and English kids who became the core circle of friends I had within school. There was occasionally tension between some of our number, but in general having people to sit with at lunch, to hang with on slack periods and to drink with after grad dance was how I coped with a lot of the pain that comes with being a weird kid.

They were, effectively, a clique. And they were, in retrospect, awesome. (Kaitlyn, Jeremy, Scott, Jim, Farah, Danny, Colin, and the rest, you guys rock. Even those of you I haven’t seen in over a decade.)

Furthermore, the conflict I had in high school wasn’t some grand battle between cliques, because these social circles were generally loose, and even if some kids in one circle enjoyed tormenting the weird kid, that didn’t mean that their friends even cared enough to do likewise.

In Silence, the protagonist is, in a special kind of way, saved by her clique. She has a loose circle of friends who have woven together through the organic connections that tie one person to another and even when they’re very different, they’re there for her.

This is reflected in the story in two ways: first, in the willingness of her friends to believe and support her when her life starts getting strange; second, by establishing what differentiates herself from other people with necromantic ability. Because necromancers are usually disaffected loners, antisocial and distant from human connection. And Emma isn’t like that. She has friends who care about her and who she cares about. And those human connections are what allow her to come to terms with her new capabilities without losing touch with her fundamental humanity.

So we have a story that celebrates friendship among teenagers, and shows how the ties we form in our formative years can help us to become better people. I find this a wonderful antidote to the pseudo-tribalism of so many other new adult entries.

There’s no love triangle

Emma’s boyfriend dies prior to the opening of the novel, and she’s grieving as the story begins. She’s certainly not looking for a new love. Sagara handles this with deftness and humour when Mr. Mysterious shows up and starts acting interested in Emma (because of her developing powers).

Her friends warn him off, let him know she’s not interested. And he’s like “oh god no, I am not trying to hook up with her,” and that’s the end of that.

Seriously, not every relationship has to be about romantic love. By deliberately, and pointedly, sidelining any romantic subplot right out of the gate, Sagara clears the stage to tell a story that’s instead all about the importance of friendship, and the bonds of family.

The magic is cool

It’s pretty much obvious from the moment that Emma hears the word “necromancer” that she’s going to end up a psychopomp. Where necromancers treat the dead as metaphysical batteries to fuel their honestly frightening array of powers, she treats the dead as people, and shows the same compassion to them that her own friends have to her in the wake of her own grief at the loss of her father and boyfriend in quick succession.

So we’ve got baddies with interesting powers, a protagonist who has a well-defined character-driven reason to use those powers differently and a strong connection between the theme of the story and the nature of the magic inserted into the world.

Simply put, it’s very well done.

If you like new adult urban fantasy and if the idea of a story that centers around the bonds that form within families and friends, about how we’re strengthened by bringing people close, by compassion given and received, this is a book you will enjoy. Minor quibbles regarding pace in the second act aside, it’s a strong series start, and I’m looking forward to reading more books with this delightful group of friends.

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