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Book Review: ‘Salvage’ by Alexandra Duncan

Everything new is old again in Salvage, Alexandra Duncan’s debut novel; it’s a feminist, sci-fi, YA epic, and while that’s a hell of a genre mash, it works.

slavgeSixteen year-old Ava grew up on the deep space merchant ship Parastrata, on which illiteracy and polygamy are the norm. It’s a misogynistic society where women are married off at thirteen in service of alliances and trade agreements. Ava hopes her betrothed is her childhood crush, Luck.

But Ava makes a mistake, betraying her honor and that of her crew, and must escape to Earth to avoid deadly punishment. She buys her way onto a delivery ship and arrives on Earth totally unprepared: She’s led a sheltered life, she’s illiterate, and she’s weakened by the unfamiliar effects of gravity. Ava must rebuild her life in a climate change-ravaged world where she knows no one and nothing about how to get by. It’s a sweeping coming-of-age story that crash lands on a floating continent of garbage scrap in the middle of the Pacific, and travels to a futuristic Mumbai, revealing a vision of a future that’s strange and familiar all at once.

What Duncan does so well is create a world that’s an imaginative take on the future that looks surprisingly similar to the past. The male-dominated society of the “crewes” aboard the merchant ships are reminiscent of any ancient world: Vikings, Romans, take your pick. The Mumbai of the future has the slums of today and the grand estates of the colonial period all intact.

While it could do with a little more explanation – what’s the backstory on the Parastrata? How did the women fall in line, succumbing fully to second-class citizenship? What’s with the weird slang? – Salvage gives us some seriously cool world-building. It seems completely plausible that there’d be interplanetary docking stations less than a day’s flight out from the Pacific Islands, or that a teenager could navigate a ship over the ocean.

Ava could easily hold her own up against Katniss and Tris (maybe not Hermione though, since she can’t read) and stands out for being street-smart and resourceful. She’s instantly real, if not instantly likeable- when we meet her, she’s a stuck up “so girl,” impressed with herself and her cool girl status. But when she totally blows it, making the classic teen girl mistake of “giving it up the night before your secret wedding to your childhood crush’s father,” she becomes just another teenager stumbling her way through those awkward years. You want to root for her even more, since some of those stumbling blocks include being nearly tossed out into deep space by her own family. Her story is rough: there’s a lot of death and disaster, and Ava loses people she loves fast and furious. But she’s a heroine you want to cheer on.

Though it takes a few pages to settle into the rhythm of Ava’s clipped interstellar pidgin, Salvage picks up quickly, hitting all the right YA fiction sign posts: poorly-thought-out young love, the threat of death, resenting authority, feeling sorry for yourself, learning from your mistakes, seeing a movie for the first time, stealing, lying, picking a fight with the new guy who has a crush on you, and more well-considered young love.

Salvage is a welcome YA change from the usual dystopian-future-tropes we can all recite from memory at this point. Ava has only to reckon with the consequences of her own mistakes, without the burden of a government-mandated fight to the death on top of it. Salvage is novel without forfeiting the timeless and wholly recognizable story that is growing up.

Salvage will be published April 1, 2014.

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