Book Review: Salvage by Alexandra Duncan
Salvage by Alexandra Duncan is the tale of a young woman’s journey from subservience to independence. Ava is born into a surprisingly conservative spacefaring culture and struggles to survive when her tribe condemns her. It’s a surprisingly rich and complex young adult tale that includes significant references to climate change. I recommend it to anyone who’s looking for women’s literature, cli-fi, an intriguing look at a conservative spacefaring culture, or just a good read in general.
Genres: Climate Fiction (Setting), Climate Fiction (Refugees), Young Adult, Women’s Literature
Genres are dynamic frameworks that describe texts with similar or related forms and contents. Readers and authors alike are free to ruminate on the nature of genre and how it relates to any given text. For Salvage, four different genres come to mind: Climate Fiction (Setting), Climate Fiction (Refugees), Young Adult, and Women’s Literature.
Climate Fiction (Setting)
Salvage is a rare case where I had a hard time deciding whether to describe it as “setting cli-fi” or “plot cli-fi.” There’s one point in the plot where one of the impacts of climate change definitely changes the entire course of the novel and the lives of the main characters. However, to me this event seemed to be more of a feature of the setting than a part of the main plot arc. The main plot arc isn’t centered around climate change and its consequences; the main character, Ava, isn’t struggling to do something about climate change, or even giving it much thought. Instead, the story is centered around Ava’s fascinating and compelling coming-of-age story. A consequence of climate change just happens to be one of the many challenges she faces along the way, not the driving force of the story.
Climate Fiction (Refugees)
The same qualifier mentioned above applies to the book’s status as climate refugee fiction. At one point, Ava is displaced by an extreme weather event that’s related to climate change. This means that she and her traveling companion are by definition climate refugees. But they don’t really consider themselves such, and the majority of the plot doesn’t really revolve around their status as climate refugees. Therefore, if you’re looking for an entire book about climate refugees, this may not be the book for you. But if you’re looking for a good story that makes a meaningful reference to prominent characters being displaced by the effects of climate change, you may like it as much as I did.
Young Adult (YA)
This novel definitely qualifies as Young Adult (YA) fiction. It centers around the coming-of-age story of a young woman who grows up in a surprisingly conservative spacefaring tribe and finds herself thrust into an adventure that takes her beyond everything she has ever known. There’s young romance, facing the challenges of independence, grappling with the failings of the broader society, and everything else you would expect in young adult fiction with a dystopian slant.
I’m not a young adult anymore, so the genre’s emphasis on coming-of-age and young romance elements isn’t always my cup of tea. But I found this to be an exciting and engaging story even for not-so-young adult readers like me. Some of the themes that it deals with — transcending conservative attitudes toward women, learning how to be independent, learning how to trust people in a not-so-trustworthy world, etc. — are timeless themes that people of all ages can take an interest in. And the elements that are fairly standard young adult fare — romantic angst, struggles with parents, ets. — are handled in such a creative way that they escape the trap of making this a “young adults only” tale.
No review of Salvage would be complete without considering its merits as a work of women’s literature. The main character, Ava, is a strong female character who is born and raised in a very patriarchal culture. Ava’s culture is so isolated that she doesn’t full realize how patriarchal it is until she makes her way out into the broader world. Gender roles are rigidly defined, and the role of women is to be servants who don’t read, repair ships, or participate in decision-making. Ava’s journey exposes her to positive (and at times complex) women allies and role models who help her find her way to a better place, both figuratively and literally. There’s a lot going on in this novel, but the major plot arc is centered around the main character’s journey from subservience in a patriarchal culture to independence and empowerment out in the broader world. And it tells that story in a way that seems nuanced, genuine, and interesting rather than being simply a two-dimensional portrayal or heavy-handed rant.
Strengths of Salvage
One of the great strengths of Salvage is that it hits the high notes of its respective genres while also transcending some of the associated limits. It’s definitely a young adult story, but it’s a story that most older readers should find enjoyable and relatable too. It includes references to catastrophic climate change and environmental concerns, but it isn’t really centered on those concerns in a heavy-handed way, which is apparently a turnoff for some readers. Fans of these respective genres will be especially interested in this novel because it does incorporate the tropes of those genres well. But it’s also a compelling story regardless of genre.
Weaknesses of Salvage
I find myself hard-pressed to find any major weaknesses in this novel. There’s a lot going on, and there are one or two twists and turns of the plot that seemingly came out of nowhere rather than fitting into a neatly defined plot or character arc. But I found this to be a pleasant departure from the purely formulaic and predictable plots of some young adult fiction.
Closing Thoughts on Salvage
I would definitely recommend Salvage to a broad audience. Fans of women’s literature, climate fiction, and futuristic stories featuring some space travel (but not much) will surely love this novel. Anyone else from a general audience will probably like it too.