Michelle Sagara makes her young adult debut with Silence, a spooky and emotionally moving urban fantasy. The heroine, Emma, is mourning her boyfriend Nathan, who died in a car accident. She feels most at peace when she visits the cemetery in the evenings — until one night she has an uncanny encounter on the grounds. And the weirdness doesn’t end there. Now Emma can see and touch the dead, and may be able to affect these spirits in other ways as well…
Emma is a well-rounded character with both good qualities and flaws. She has a little bit of youthful egocentricity, as when she thinks that Nathan’s mother’s grief is “almost” as bad as hers (and if this irks you while reading, stay tuned — it’s part of her character development). Despite this, she’s anything but a selfish person. She looks out for her friends, both the ones who are popular and the ones who aren’t. She loves her dog, who is so true to my own experience with an aging Rottweiler that I think Sagara must have secretly met my dog at some point. And the risk she is willing to undertake, when she learns of the suffering of a child ghost, is downright heroic. She is likable in the beginning and grows during the novel’s events to become an even more compelling heroine.
As for those friends, they are delightful characters too. Michael is on the autism spectrum and his different worldview is crucial to the story at several points. Amy is the school’s queen bee, and is given more depth, warmth, and humor than is usually afforded to this type of character. Allison is plain and awkward but fiercely loyal, and at one point delivers an awesome verbal smackdown. I wish I could make ten clones of Allison and deploy them into various other YA novels so she could tell off the overbearing males in those books too.
The male lead, Eric, is part of an organization that classifies Emma’s abilities as necromancy and wants to kill all necromancers. This might seem like the typical “guy is a threat to girl’s life” plot, but he actually isn’t a threat to her for very long, which makes him much easier to stomach. As soon as he gets to know her, he realizes she’s a good person and urgently coaches her on how to evade the organization. Later, he actively helps and defends her. Then comes the really surprising part: there’s no romance between the two. Emma is still grieving Nathan, and Eric seems sometimes interested in her friend Amy and sometimes not really interested in anyone at all. Sagara may develop a romance between Emma and Eric later, but it works well as a friendship, and even if it does become romantic it’ll be all the stronger for the gradual build.
This organization isn’t the only threat to Emma. Evil necromancers are after her too, and the heroic act she’s about to undertake for the child ghost is itself inherently dangerous. All of these perils come together in the climactic scene. This scene, perhaps, goes on a little too long and has a few confusing moments. The length saps some of the urgency from it; we know it must actually be taking place in less time than it takes to read about it, but its length makes it feel like it takes more time than it really would. However, this scene is also filled with intense emotion and vivid imagery, and there are parts of it that had me on the edge of my seat with nervousness. Then, Silence finishes with Emma gaining a new perspective on her life and Sagara introducing a couple of wicked plot hooks for book two: one that shakes up Emma personally, and one regarding the passage between our world and the next one and what has gone wrong with it.
Silence distinguishes itself in a glutted field of YA paranormal fiction. Sagara starts with some of the popular plot tropes, but doesn’t take them in the directions you might expect, and the lovable characters and authentic emotion help set the book apart too. It’s a story of loss, grief, and the way life goes on after tragedy, sad at times but hopeful rather than depressing. I highly recommend it to YA urban fantasy fans.