Book review: The Sound of Stars by Alechia Dow

(cover image courtesy Goodreads)

When aliens invade Earth, as they are so wont to do, things don’t quite go according to planned.

The Ilori, arriving as invading forces often do, with an overwhelming power and force designed to cower the indigenous population into easily-controlled submission, find humanity easily rattled and prone to shoot, a trigger-happy strategy that sees one-third of humanity sent to whatever god/s they believe in and the rest consigned to special habitation centres or left in the heavily-guarded remnants of cities such as New York City.

So far, so alien invasion script-like, you might think.

But then author Alechia Dow does something quite extraordinarily affecting in her sublimely-wonderful debut novel The Sound of Stars – she brings a human called Janelle “Ellie” Baker together with an alien known as M0Rr1s (called him Morris; everyone else does) in such a compelling manner that all the usual expectations of how an alien occupancy of our much in-demand planet should proceed are happily blown out the window.

What makes this combination of beaten-down subject with domineering overlord so hard to stop reading about is that Ellie is far from being cowed in any way shape or form (she’s scared like anyone would be but brave) and a dissident who lends out banned books to the people in her locked-down apartment block while Morris is a supposedly emotionless Ilori who loves the rush of human emotions and craves human music (banned like books and all art because it might be an instrument of rebellion).

“I blame the Starry Eyed for the risks I take. Allister Daniels, the lead singer, once said that life’s short, but it’s the longest thing you’ll ever do, so give more than you take and be kind. I guess that meant a lot to me, because here I am, giving and being kind … And it’s probably going to be my downfall.” (Janelle – P. 16)

They are not at all what they should be; while Ellie is very human in the way she defiantly but quietly defies the Ilori, she is an outlier in a population who have largely submitted to their invaders out of fear, Morris is a labmade alien – “true” Ilori are energy beings and not flesh and blood – who has been crafted to look human but who isn’t supposed to become human which he does in a way that shocks Ellie and shocks all her understanding of what aliens do.

Which is destroy the life she once knew – she is honest enough to admit that her previous life was far from perfect but it was hers, thank you very much – turn her parents into cruel caricatures of the people she loves (again fissures were in evidence before but even so Ellie hates that the invaders delivered the coup de gras) and imprison her in what’s left of her home, her city, and if plans go according to vaccinated plan, her own body.

Morris admittedly is one of the invaders and he has created the vaccine that will turn people into nicely-compliant blobs of zombie servitude but he is doing like his brethren, and when he meets Ellie, not only do romantic comedy sparks fly but the stage is set for the most extraordinary series of events to ever grace an alien invasion storyline.

That is, of course, the delicious delight of The Sound of Stars, a supremely engaging and emotionally resonant novel which proves in ways buoyant and insightful, serious and Hallmark-gushy (not a bad thing when Dow writes with such emotional prowess) that love really can bridge all kinds of divide and conquer, ahem, all.

Clearly, there is an element of opposites attracting going on here, and Dow uses it beautifully, exploring what it is like when invader and invadee discover that the other is nothing like they expected or imagined and that everything they thought they knew might be a good deal more complicated, and wonderful, than they gave it credit for.

Alechia Dow (image courtesy official Alechia Dow Twitter account)

Linking the nascent relationship between a reluctant Ellie, who understandably initially finds falling in anything with Morris an unacceptable repudiation of her dissident defense of beleaguered, much-dead humanity, and Morris who is deeply troubled his race and his high status family’s approach to just about everything, is music, specifically a band known as the Starry Eyed.

Releasing music, well pre-invasion anyway, that is a heady mix of Coldplay-level melodies and romantically-inspired rumination, the Starry Eyed, who turn out to be a good deal more important in the scheme of things that anyone expected, embody the spirit of giving and kindness and staying true to who you are, that inspires Ellie to make her own small stand for humanity.

But they are also purveyors of the music that emboldens Morris to defy his heritage and his race’s modus operandi with artists like the Beatles and Bowie, the Cure and Beyoncé inspiring and thrilling and delighting him as they awake a humanity in him his creators did not intend for him to possess.

He is simply an instrument of invasion in the eyes of “true” Ilori who pragmatically manufacture lab-made versions of themselves who resemble the native inhabitants of each planet they invade and who expect their creations to happily comply and act as the agents of oppression and suppression.

Morris, brought alive by human culture but most importantly Ellie, is nothing like his creators intended and so his coming together with one of the humans he is supposed to oppress is the stuff of heady, thrilling change that sees the steadily loved-up twosome dashing from east to west in the continental United States, armed with books and music and a ton of tenacity (they’ll need it!), in search of a solution that could see things utterly transformed for everyone involved.

“The air leaves my lungs in one big exhale. My fists tighten by my sides. They’re going to shoot, I know it. And right now, Morris is all I have. He says he can save my family. And I don’t know them, my fellow humans…but I know they could just as well shoot me. I should let it be. If they die, it’s not my problem. They mean nothing to me.

But there’s a voice in the back of my head, loud and clear, asking me if I can truly sit back and watch the humans die. I can’t forgive Morris for doing that. Why should I do the same?” (Janelle – P. 173)

The Sound of Stars is a delight in every possible way, a beguiling pleasure to read that keeps you immersed in its gripping, affecting story every single step (or driven mile) of the way.

Dow has a gift, a resonant, captivating gift, for crafting vividly-realised characters who surprise and delight and who act in ways that are very human and yet nothing like you expect them to be.

This is a love story told across a high-stakes, emotionally-expansive backdrop that is action-filled with a capital “A” but also intimately, touchingly romantic and introspectively beautiful about what it means to be human, both good and bad and in-between, and how that is worth preserving even if it flawed and not always perfectly lived-out.

There is so much depth and truth to this heartfelt, thoughtful and stunningly well-written novel that you will marvel at the fact that someone has actually found something new to say about one of the most highly-travelled genres out there.

The Sound of Stars may have a well-used premise but it runs and flies and drives with it with such gusto and heart and spirit that you are completely and absolutely swept up in its story in a way few books really manage, invested to the very end of yourself in the fate of its protagonists, the Earth and humanity itself which doesn’t always get it right but, as it turns out, has quite a lot to recommend it.

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