Modern young adult novels are often praised (or derided) for their snappy plots and brightly drawn characters. Like the commercial genre books of yore, these books seem perfectly baked for quick consumption. Novels such as Divergent (2011) and The Hunger Games (2008) have found mass appeal in part because of their easy digestibility and strong adolescent voices; cliff-hanger endings between chapters and books certainly don't hurt their readability, either. Alexandra Duncan's debut, Salvage, stands out from the crowd in that it does not concede to most typical YA genre formulations. Her heroine, Parastrata Ava, is not a particularly kick-ass girl, and though well-rendered, she is mostly notable in her pliant nature and passivity. Acting more as a lens for Duncan's striking future Earth and off-planet environs, Ava, in some ways, resembles more a typical literary heroine than YA hero. Because of this, and thanks to the languorous plotting of this five-hundred-plus-page tome, Salvage may puzzle younger readers and those who read young, but should find fans among those who want greater heft and thoughtfulness in their science fictional worldbuilding.
Salvage opens in the rich world of the Parastrata, a merchant spaceship where traditional gender roles rule. The expectations for men and women among the "crewe" are not just old-fashioned but rather informed by the ship’s polygamous marriage system. Duncan does a good job of exploring the broader impact of fundamental polygamy. Though her ship's society has its own complex (and sensitively written) mythology and religion, the greedy patriarchs, lost boys, and women torn between them feel right out of modern fundamental Mormonism. This first section of the novel, recounting Ava's arranged marriage and life aboard two merchant ships, is beautifully written—in dialect, at that. Though the patois of the Parastrata goes unexplained through the novel’s conclusion, it is both immersive and easily understood, adding an outer layer of difference and distinctiveness to what could otherwise be a more standard YA dystopian yarn of a teenage girl in a land of social control.
But then, in a passage that lays the religious allusion on thick, Ava is cast out of a garden. After seduction in a grove (here, of lemons) by an ersatz Lucifer named Luck, who promises her not only love but also to teach her to read, she’s banished from her ship. Soon, Ava finds herself on a wrecked Earth, where landmass-sized islands of garbage float in polluted seas. She's taken in by a woman named Perpétue and her daughter Miyole and begins to not only recover from the newly felt impact of the Earth's gravity but also to reform her thinking about life, the universe, and gender roles.
It's here that the plot of Salvage loses quite a bit of its steam. Ava's stated goal is to find her modrie—maternal aunt—but she often takes long digressions from this quest, and sometimes it feels like her decisions arise not out of any organic, character-driven place but rather because the author has decided that the plot demands it. This is most sharply felt in a scene where Ava spots her modrie, then, inexplicably, flees:
All I have to do is reach out and knock on the doorframe, speak her name.
So why can’t I raise my hand?
Soraya pushes back her chair and stands. Any breath now she’ll turn around. She'll see me. My modrie Soraya, she’ll see me, and then I'll have to explain. I'll have to spill everything out to her—my crimes, my shame, my failure. I can’t do it. I spin on my heel and flee, down the hall and the stairs, through the foyer, past the buildings new and ancient, and the beautiful, useless roses. (pp. 288-9)
In some ways, such vacillation is realistic for Ava's character; raised in a patriarchal society where women who take their sexualities into their own hands are disdained, it's only natural that she would internalize some of the misogyny she has experienced. But Ava's growth doesn't seem to follow a particularly smooth trajectory, and while some might argue that this is realistic, too, it is also, often, maddening. The growth (and concurrent regressions) also doesn't feel organic, but rather seem in service to extending the plot. Choices such as this one allow Duncan to more deeply explore the rich, post-apocalyptic setting, moving Ava from a floating body of trash in the Pacific to futuristic Mumbai, but the ultimate effect is that Ava's character is considerably watered down. Does she really want to find her aunt? And if she doesn't, what does she truly want? We're given no hints, though Ava does spend the chapters that follow cultivating a romance with a boy named Rushil—and then castigating herself for this. Her deeper desires seem to remain murky, to both Ava and the readers. I wouldn't call her particularly "strong," either in constitution or distinctiveness. At the very least, Duncan's decision to have Ava divert from her initial quest and spend a few dozen pages romancing the admittedly attractive-sounding Rushil make her seem not only distractible but a wee bit silly as well.
But perhaps that's merely because Duncan wishes to fully explore the setting she's created. Each setting of the novel is stunningly rendered, and though there are a few cliché descriptions (light is not only twice described as "buttery" but once it "melts like buttery ghee" [p. 429]), her prose is by-and-large gorgeous. One of my favorite passages comes early in the novel, when, after her romance with Luck is discovered, Ava hides herself in a nutritive oil that houses bioluminescent fish—who slowly go out as she tries to save herself:
I dip in my hand again. My skin brushes their slick bodies. I have to push them aside to draw out more oil. I close my eyes. Their tails slap and thrash against my skin.
"I'm sorry," I say again. Hot lines of tears rim my eyes as I cover my sides with oil.
The fish twitch and gasp. Some have already stopped moving. The room tips closer to darkness as the light leaves their skin.
I rip two strips of cloth from the hem of my bridal skirt and wrap them around my feet. I pull myself up into one of the niches and lean forward, clutching my knees. I don't know how long the oil will keep the cold at bay, but it seems wise to touch as little of the cold metal as possible. I watch as the light from the bowl dims and dims, until only one fish still glows underneath the bodies of the others. Shadows swallow the walls, the floors, the ceiling.
Don't go out, don't go out.
But then the weak blue glow falters and true black closes over me. (p. 116)
It's a clever conceit—a dab of worldbuilding, a dash of gorgeous description, which perfectly examine Ava's own fears about her tenuous tether to her old life. Similarly, Ava's prolonged sojourn in Mumbai, though inscrutable from a character perspective, really does allow Duncan to uncover this world. From the Parastrata to the Aether to the Gyre to the streets of Mumbai to the upper-crust girls' school where Ava eventually lands when she finally does reconnect with her modrie, each setting is distinct, described in visceral detail that engages all of the senses: "The air wafts cool on my skin, and the walls swallow all the city's sound. We walk through a low-sunk sitting room with cushioned chairs, gleaming wood floors, and shelves for paper books built into the wall. The back end of the room is all glass, looking out on a brick-walled garden. A tree with star-shaped leaves, so purple they’re near black, shades the corner of the yard" (p. 390). Ava may be more a lens than a person, at times, but she's a lens to a setting far better rendered than most novels for either teenagers or adults. And, ultimately, though her initial characterization is a touch weak, she does come into herself by the novel's conclusion. By the novel's end, she's quite a feminist figure, and her desire for a life that's more than sewing, cooking, babies, and Luck is well-contextualized in the wider events of the book. Now Ava seeks a more organic community of women than the one she initially found in her shipboard society—and a romance freely chosen rather than arranged by the patriarchs of her ship. Though the conclusion of the love triangle is still a touch hackneyed even given these developments, and while certain revelations about Ava's past come late in the narrative, the overall effect is a very strong one.
And strongly appreciated, in a genre where so many books take a more shallow (though also more straightforward) approach. Salvage is an imperfect novel; it's messy, sprawling, even meandering. But it's also undeniably rich. Those on the lookout for snappy, character-driven sci-fi had best look elsewhere, but readers who crave thoughtful explorations of patriarchal societies wrapped in a rich science fictional setting will love this one.
Phoebe North writes SF for teenagers. Her first book, Starglass, came out in July from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. Visit her blog at www.phoebenorth.com.