4.5/5 stars — Dow’s debut is relatable and inspiring: a valuable message of hope in adversity
It’s not often these days a book leaves me profoundly peaceful and full of optimism. Alechia Dow’s debut, The Sound of Stars, is about a girl named Ellie Baker who holds onto determination and compassion in the face of terrible odds. The harshness of Ellie’s world—and the arrival of denizens of another world, too—are never enough to snuff out her star. And while the book goes to some necessarily dark places, the message is ultimately one of survival and love. The story is also about one of the invading aliens: a labmade Ilori named M0R1s (or “Morris,” as Ellie comes to know him). While Ellie’s initially wary of his motives, she slowly learns that his mission on Earth may not align with that of the other Ilori—particularly the elite “true” Ilori who give him orders. (If you’re a Star Trek fan, you’ll understand when I say the Ilori are kind of like Vulcans crossed with the Borg. They value logic, dismiss emotion, and are all about the collective and assimilating humans to their purpose.) In some ways, it’s a well-loved story given new life with an innovative premise. Ellie and Morris are star-crossed lovers: an alien and a human. He sings to her and she tells him stories. Together, they’re going to save the world.
“The world still has a chance. What would it do with a second chance? What would I do? The answer surprises me. I’d fight for my own happiness, while fighting for change, too.”
Ellie exists under an overlap of several umbrellas of marginalization: she's black, has anxiety and a thyroid condition, is fat, and is on the asexual spectrum. Although the narrative touches on all of them and focuses particularly on the way Ellie and her family have been treated as people of color, I'm going to center on the ways in which Ellie's experience parallels my own. I'm not a person of color, so my general policy is to leave discussions of those parts of stories to reviews and readers of color. I really appreciated the way Dow wrote Ellie—it would have been easy to have her agonize over her appearance and her body, but aside from bemoaning the lack of selection in plus-size clothes (still a problem even after the aliens invade, alas) and jumping on the chance to resume medication for her chronic conditions, Ellie's mostly comfortable in her wn skin. That was so valuable to me even now, and I can't begin to imagine how wonderful it would have been to read about a character like Ellie when I was a teen. Further, it was lovely to read a story with such a focus on romance where the main character was demi-ace (and likely biromantic, although that part's discussed but not labeled) and it's never a source of drama. Morris is happy to follow Ellie's lead when it comes to any physicality in their relationship.
There are so many ways to love The Sound of Stars. From Ellie’s excellent taste in books and Morris’s adorable habit of serenading her with pop songs from various eras to the hard-hitting confrontation of prejudice and Dow’s sheer literary talent, this book has something for everyone. (Can we talk about how lightness and the color white were positioned as negative when too often the opposite is taken for granted? The Ilori decorate like celebrities with too much space and money on their hands, and Dow captured that eerie emptiness perfectly.)
While reading, I marked a bunch of lines I liked, many of which were ones that resonated with current events and real-world issues. I love that Dow didn’t tone that content down for YA readers or try to explain it in an overly gentle way. We’ve got stuff like white liberals at their peak of bullshit: “He was relentless with ‘I’m an ally, I’m a liberal.’ And in the same breath, he’d mumble to our neighbors, ‘But we don’t want this sort living here,’” and later a description of life getting worse for everyone, but POC in particular, in the shadow of a hostile government. Because I can’t give everything I enjoyed or appreciated its own paragraph without this review being several thousand words long, here are a few more standout bits
Ellie’s self-professed taste in books: “I like everything, especially YA where girls kick ass and boys don’t get in their way.”
the way Ilori can tune in to the frequency of individual human minds to influence them, listen to them, or speak nonverbally. It’s creepy-cool as a concept, and Morris sets himself apart by asking for Ellie’s consent before doing it.
labmade Illori needing to charge themselves. Morris has a plot-relevant reason to hover around 13% charge, but it kept me on edge the whole book!
Ellie’s description of her romantic orientation, which made me feel very seen: “…gender didn’t matter to me romantically. I only ever wanted to be with someone who has a good heart, good taste in books and music, and is kind.”
the presence of many nonbinary characters, both Ilori and human
Morris trying to swear and saying “ferk,” which is hilarious
The Sound of Stars is one of those books that will stick with me for years. I imagine it would’ve had an even deeper impact if I’d been able to read it at seventeen instead of twenty-nine; still more for teens of color who may share more of Ellie’s experiences. This book is about leaping headlong into love—not just romantic love, but familial love and self-acceptance too—even through adversity. It’s a beacon of a story, and I recommend it to anyone interested in YA sci-fi with a liberal dash of hope that defies the odds.
Content warnings: minor blood, mentions of death/murder and genocide, alcoholic parent, descriptions of racism (overt and microagressions), brief scene of body image issues, attempted hanging