by Alechia Dow
The Sound of Stars is set in the U.S., mainly New York, where aliens—Ilori—have taken over to…wait for it…use it as a vacation spot. (I know. Doesn’t that make you mad too?) They will use humans as sleeves, inserting their consciousness into human bodies to experience earth as “natives.” Before this can happen, a vaccine must be created and administered to make human bodies vacant, devoid of freedom and thought but still functioning. M0Rr1S—since humans cannot produce the sound of his name pronounce it as Morris instead—is a labmade, created in a lab in the image of humans and from the genetic material of a true Ilori mother (true meaning fully Ilori and not mixed with any other type of genetic material). As a labmade, he holds the title of commander largely due to his father’s status but is no more than a servant doing the bidding of true Ilori. One of his tasks is to create the vaccine, which he successfully makes. But, being labmade makes M0Rr1S unique: he feels; he enjoys music; and he enjoys reading—all things outlawed by Ilori.
The other half of our pairing is seventeen-year-old Janelle, or Ellie as her friends call her, who silently defies Ilori restrictions by loaning out books—yup, she’s a rebel librarian (best title ever). She is not the most sociable person, proclaiming books to be her friends, except for one individual, Alice. Ellie may live with her parents but she may as well be living on her own. Her father is no longer her father but a walking, breathing “half-shell” of the man he used to be after being given monthly injections of a vaccine. Her mother has fallen to a different kind of drug, alcohol, and even asks Ellie to help hide alcohol.
Ellie’s current life is often interspersed with memories of life before the invasion when things were (relatively) better. Her father was a librarian, her mother was a professor, and she played the cello. Her parents were in love not sleeping in different bedrooms and barely speaking to one another. Before the invasion, racism often reared its ugly head (not that it isn’t still present after the invasion; it’s just there are now other things to possibly be more concerned about). They weren’t welcome in their new home and people looked at her, wondering how she got into a prestigious school (hence not better, just only relatively).
Their lives intersect when M0Rr1S stumbles upon her hidden library. Rather than turn her in, he requests her assistance in acquiring more music, and in return, he promises that she and her family will be spared from the vaccine. Despite the danger, Ellie agrees to the bargain to save the people she loves. All seems to go according to plan until someone notifies the guards of what she is doing, and she is to be immediately executed. Rather than allow this to happen, M0Rr1S rescues her and sets into motion a road trip to California, bonding over music and books, and trying to board a fallen Ilori ship to save the world.
JANELLE “ELLIE” BAKER
Ellie is a character I related to immediately. She loved books and music, finding solace in them. She treasures her books like I treasure mine, but she’s a lot nicer than I am because she lends them out. Lucky for me (or maybe not so lucky), my friends don’t really like to read. She has a quiet strength others may overlook because she is not very social and doesn’t vocalize her concerns. She appears to be the last person who would willingly break the rules. I could relate to that, I was that person for my friends–of course, I’ve never broken the law. (Innocent until proven guilty. You have no evidence on me. And even if you did, it’s all circumstantial. It might also depend on which law you’re referring to…)
Ellie, as one half of our heroic duo, is not a flawless individual and I liked that about her character–it made her seem like a real person. She has hyperthyroidism. She has anxiety. And, she didn’t just wake up one day and randomly decide she would be a rebel librarian; she didn’t wake up with superpowers. Events in her life compelled her to resist Ilori rule in her way. She lives in fear of the consequences of actions but also refuses to go down without fighting. She didn’t originally choose to be a hero. She starts off only wanting to save her family but eventually it becomes more than just her family but saving humanity. Janelle is the hero I hope I have inside of me.
MORE REFLECTING ON THE BOOK
While I could immediately connect with Janelle and could also sympathize with M0Rr1S, for some reason it took me a bit to warm up to them as the OTP. I rather liked them individually and as friends–despite M0Rr1S essentially blackmailing her to become his friend. Their love of art–music and books–is what connects them, allowing them to bond over the span of about a week and a half. They just meet all of two seconds (okay, I’m exaggerating a bit) and he already likes her, bordering on being in love with her. She is still cautious of him and being demisexual means that she doesn’t feel the same immediate attraction that he does. So, I understood their connection to one another, but the romance felt forced to me because it seemed more like friendship. It didn’t feel like what M0Rr1S was making it out to be, until maybe the last quarter of the book when the potential was finally there.
I like how Janelle calls out the trope as well—falling in love in just a few days and how impossible it seems—because I kept thinking it too. But even as she calls it out loud and M0Rr1s tries to make her believe otherwise, and even if I’m a nonbeliever now, being a lot more cynical than I used to be, I recalled a time when I was in love and in those seven days I felt like I made a connection that most people only ever dream about. It was even less time than Ellie and M0Rr1s had together…so maybe it isn’t so impossible. It was a long time ago but this book made me wistfully remember when love felt like it conquered everything, and it was worth the risk. And for Janelle, who is cautious, and M0Rr1S, who never fails to express himself, love empowers them to risk their lives for a better future. Just to be clear, it’s not a romantic love that initially pushes them forward. For Janelle, it is first her family and humanity. For M0Rr1S, it is his mother and his people. Although at the beginning of the book, Janelle insists that “it’s about time everyone understands that there is no hope,” by the end she is doing what only the hopeful would do, shoot for the stars.
The Sound of Stars is a unique read and feels very much like Alechia Dow’s love letter about books and music. It is about the power that resides in the arts, its ability to connect us; the power it has to evoke feelings so strong that it can, and maybe even should, lead us to rebel against oppression of those we may only think are different from us.
There is a lot to like, including pop culture references and the regular person/alien becoming a hero. One of my favorite parts in the book is the incorporation of lyrics into the writing, in particular “Dreams” from The Cranberries. Neither of them was singing, it was just M0Rr1S feeling like his life was changing, you know, “in every possible way.” I found myself smiling and reading those words to the tune (and I’m also a fan of The Cranberries so obviously there is bias on my part). When an author is writing about music and books, I think it should be expected that lyrics are incorporated in the writing and not just as lyrics being sung/spoken. It’s like sharing this knowing glance with the reader, a look that says, “Yes, I just did that. And, I know you know what song this is from.” Also, I very much need music of the Starry Eyed in my life. I need to hear Allister Daniels put those lyrics to a tune.
While the middle of the book was just so-so (I mean, things happen and it’s not bad or anything), I enjoyed the beginning and the ending most of all. Overall, I found that I could connect to both characters because of their connection to music and books and how it brought them together. Music spoke to M0Rr1S and Ellie like it speaks to me, songs triggering memories and emotions but also moments triggering the perfect song. We all have a soundtrack to our lives and Dow captures that well through the characters and the epigraphs.
Most of all, I liked that the book left me feeling empowered.
**This is a very surface-level review and doesn’t really do the book justice. There are so many themes that are rampant in this book that I could dissect but maybe I can do that another time. For now, it’s just about my connection to Ellie and the theme of music and books.