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On The Shelf: ‘Silent’ by David Mellon

‘Sup readers? Welcome back to Fan Fest’s On The Shelf— if you’ve kept up with the column, you know the drill. Basically, books take up a lot of space, so the ones you choose to keep should be stories you thoroughly enjoy, rather than mediocre reads with awe-worthy cover designs; I’ll sift through newly-released literature, and tell you which would be recommended to sit pretty on your shelf, and which would be best relegated to your e-reader. It’s all opinion-based, but that’s the gist of it, and away we go.

This week has been dismal, weather-wise. Detained in what some might call the unwashed coccyx of Canada comes with fierce winds, disagreeable cold fronts, snow, and rain that smells like fish. Utterly miserable, calling for a book that would provide not only entertainment, but complete and total distraction.

David Mellon’s Silent just happened to be this week’s book. Silent’s Goodreads page categorizes it as a historical thriller, and the ensuing summary makes it sound like a standard YA story with a Mulan-esque twist: disguising herself as a man, a teenage girl enlists in the army during WWI, all in the name of saving her younger brothers. That would be exciting enough on its own, but for once, Goodreads has failed potential readers and thrown them off of Silent’s real scent. In order to fully embrace David Mellon’s Silent for what it is, you must empty your head of preconceived notions regarding fictionalized accounts of wartime, and imagine.

Imagine: a man who is also an evil shapeshifter (named Coal, for future reference). A man who is the indirect impetus for WWI— he might not have shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand, but he was the driving force behind it happening— is angry at you for botching his earlier attempts at warmongering. So angry, in fact, that he burns down your house, kidnaps your younger twin brothers, and will only give you a pocket watch marked with your own blood, and brain-melting riddles to help you find them. The kicker? You cannot speak or write, thereby isolating yourself from any potential help— if you want to find your brothers and stop this depraved madman, you’ll have to do it by being absolutely silent.

This is the situation our central protagonist, Aditi— “Adi”— has found herself embroiled in. Half-British and half-Indian, Adi is used to being an outcast, having a tougher time than most. But without words of any kind to help her explain, she’s left with her wits, her luck (despite the torching of her home and the kidnapping of her siblings, she’s remarkably lucky), and the kindness of strangers to solve this mystery and find the twins.

This is the oddest novel I’ve read in quite some time. Though the summary suggests it’s about a war, Adi doesn’t actually stumble into her career as a soldier until almost halfway through the book (48% of the way through, to be precise). Even then, WWI is not an all-encompassing thing, it’s a mere roadblock on her journey to save her brothers. Throughout the entirety of the book, readers are treated to Mellon weaving numerous side-stories with deftness, slipping them casually into the framework of the larger plot, entrancing readers with weird bits of never-fully-explained magic and characters that encompass various extremes on the morality spectrum.

While Adi is resourceful and driven, written like a blend of Mulan, Belle, Ariel, and Tiana— it’s her mysterious antagonist who steals the spotlight. Coal may be a man of magic, but he’s also a man with a past, with his own private reasons for committing atrocities, and even— though it’s never made explicitly clear as to why— helping Adi avoid some of her own. In a story that’s already overloaded with questions, its pages dripping with mysteries large and small, Coal is the inciting enigma, the base from which this rocket ship is launched into space. In that way, he is far more complex, and more interesting than any of the other characters. While you don’t necessarily want him to win— he brought about World War I! Nobody wants that!— you’re morbidly curious about the man and the power he wields.

You would think the book would flow in a linear fashion (it’s not that long, 320 pages) but it reaches back and forth, springing forward then leaping back. How Mellon managed this without causing a headache, I’m not sure, but he did.

It should be noted that one does not require a vast knowledge of WWI to enjoy the story. It’s more about the stories within a story, and the characters who inhabit Mellon’s fascinatingly-imagined playground. Magical realism reigns supreme, but then again, so does the notion of responsibility— whether you’re a girl trying to save her brothers, or the heir to a throne, drunkenly deferring your duties.

Silent does stumble over itself a little bit, at times staggering through the different characters and their various woes, devoting time to some and then skimping with others. It sometimes manages to feel like the bookish counterpart of Ouroboros— though maybe that’s the point.

All in all, this strange little novel’s pros outweigh its cons, wrangling itself a spot on the shelf. I will be eagerly waiting for Mellon’s next foray into the literary world. If Silent sounds like your kind of read, you can pick up a copy here.

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