I had pretty low expectations of Soundless, based on other people’s reactions, which perhaps helped me enjoy it a little more. I certainly don’t dispute that for something “steeped” in Chinese culture, it’s rather thin on it, and that the magical cure for deafness — coming right at the start of the book, as if all the rest of the plot couldn’t have been carried by a deaf protagonist — is kind of icky. On the other hand, at least the love interest remains deaf, and despite the star-crossed lovers thing it tries to pull, at least it’s never about the fact that Fei can hear and Li Wei can’t. It’s also nice that this is a standalone, with a self-contained plot.
It’s my first Richelle Mead book, so I can’t comment on the style and skill level as compared to her other work. It’s rather simplistically written, and for a book which involves the miraculous return of a character’s sense of hearing, it’s a little thin on the sensory descriptions apart from at key moments — there are some moving descriptions of spontaneous displays of grief, and an interesting section where Fei is beginning to realise she can hear and working out what exactly each noise means… but I feel like I should have been able to smell the paint, taste the tea, feel the grain of wood when she touches Li Wei’s carvings. That richness definitely isn’t there, and it would have added a lot, I think.
Also, on a purely technical note, I know magic is involved, but Fei has actually missed the critical period for learning to hear by a long, long way. You need the experience of hearing as a baby to really be able to understand and interpret it as an adult. At the very least, it’s much more painstaking, and I didn’t see that here either.
The set-up is also pretty simplistic: it’s only a stone’s throw from Panem, really, but less complex. There are only three classes of worker, plus beggars: miners, servants and artists. In a larger social situation, the artists’ importance would probably make more sense, but we’re given to understand it’s a pretty darn small community. Word of mouth (so to speak) works just as well in that setting, and wouldn’t be a drain on resources or manpower. Also, the division of labour versus the division of food makes very little sense.
Still, if you read Soundless as a kind of folk tale, a fable, it kind of works. I didn’t dislike reading it — and I did read it practically all in one go.