Today’s Book: “Tone of Voice” by Kaia Sønderby, a sequel to “Failure to Communicate”
The Plot: The Hands and Voices, a species of symbiotic whale- and squid-like beings, want to join the Starsystems Alliance. The only person they’ll negotiate with is Xandri Corelel, an autistic woman who interprets alien behavior for a living. But Xandri’s enemies are about to disrupt the negotiations in a spectacular way.
Autistic Character(s): Xandri.
Yay! Xandri Corelel is back! You might recall from my “Failure to Communicate” review that she is one of my favorite autistic characters ever, and one of the most relatable characters for me personally. Plus now there are WHALES! You really can’t go wrong with this setup, and Sønderby does not, in fact, go wrong with it.
I really like the Hands and Voices. Partly because SPACE WHALES, SPACE SQUID, it is not difficult to appease me with these topics. But they are also just a really nice, sweet-natured bunch of aliens with some very cool underwater technology. I especially love the way they approach the idea of group identity. Each Voice (whale) is paired with a small group of symbiotic Hands (squid) and their language appears to have no singular pronouns, using words that are translated as “we” whether they’re talking about an individual organism, a Voice with their attendant Hands, a whole pod of Hands and Voices, or even larger groups.
Because the Hands and Voices are so nice and cooperative, and because they already trust Xandri, the actual diplomacy in this book is much simpler than in “Failure to Communicate.” We get much less of Xandri’s efforts to puzzle through difficult social situations, because apart from a deliciously tense standoff near the end, most of this book’s social situations are pretty straightforward. A good chunk of the story is positively idyllic, with Xandri and her co-workers enjoying the pleasant beachside environment and swimming around in the ocean while they figure out how they would meet the Hands and Voices’ needs in space. Until, of course, some anti-alien militia show up…
But just because the diplomacy is simple this time, that doesn’t mean we don’t get good, nuanced Autism Content. Xandri has grown as a person since the first book, but much of that growth has been difficult; the ending of that book had her temporarily exiled after taking the fall for a diplomatic upset. She’s become more aware of the awful things doctors used to say about autistic people – and, without an autistic community around her, she spends a lot of time worrying that these things might be true. Even when her actions on the page are clearly selfless and her emotions in the narration are deeply caring – and when other characters make a point to recognize how much she cares – Xandri still worries that maybe she’s heartless because that’s what she’s read about herself. As usual for Xandri, this is very relatable to me!
Xandri is practicing assertiveness, a skill that she first tried at a pivotal moment in “Failure to Communicate.” Thanks to her long study of human behavior, she’s startlingly good at it, able to stare down scary military officers and come out ahead. But it’s an immensely draining skill for her to use, and it leaves her feeling uncomfortable and guilty.
Captain Chui – Xandri’s longtime boss – encourages her at this. She is startled when Xandri also uses her newfound assertiveness to question her own orders. I appreciate the nuance in how this is handled – especially the way Captain Chui does listen to Xandri’s concerns, even if she doesn’t ultimately agree. A worse person might easily have shut her down and told her assertiveness wasn’t appropriate here, but Captain Chui recognizes that assertiveness isn’t real unless a person can use it when they choose to, even against you.
Xandri draws insight from her own autistic experience in softer moments as well:
“Sometimes I wonder,” I said, as we started down the dock.“Hmm?”“If we’re doing the right thing, I mean. Bringing them into the Alliance. They seem so innocent…”That caught her attention. She swiveled to look at me, her brows furrowed. “Because they see the world in a different way than you do? Because they interact with it differently? Because they don’t have the exact same-““Whoa!” I held up my hands in surrender. “Easy, fireball. Didn’t mean it as an insult, I swear. It’s just… well, look at ’em.”“I know.” Xandri sighed and ran her fingers through her hair, mussing her ponytail. “It’s not like the thought never crossed my mind, but… it’s wrong to judge them as too innocent, simply because their expression appears innocent to us. They’re a sapient species, shown to be shrewd in negotiations, as seen by their nebula pearl trade. They’re smart, technological, and they know to be cautious about other sapients; in fact, they learned that lesson quicker than most. This is their choice to make and-and it would be wrong to try to take their choices from them.”She stared straight ahead as she spoke and, not for the first time, I got the feeling her words weren’t just about the Hands and Voices. She spoke like that sometimes, like she was seeing a problem from the inside, like she’d experienced it herself.
She also gets to do one of my new favorite tropes, namely, overly literal autistic banter in an action scene:
“Maybe we should test your theory,” Santino said, raising the gun and pointing it at me.“Hypothesis.”“What?”“I’m enough of a scientist to confess that I don’t have enough evidence to call it a theory just yet.”
I mentioned in my review of “Failure to Communicate” that there was some setup I hoped would lead to a queer romance. Surprise, it does! Kinda. In the first book, Xandri was attracted to Diver and Kiri, two of her closest friends on the Carpathia. The attraction seemed mutual but nothing quite happened. In this book, there’s a clear romantic slow burn between Xandri and Diver, and they do get into a relationship, though it’s still new and tentative when the book ends. Xandri has past trauma that makes it difficult for her to navigate a relationship’s early stages. Sønderby handles this with a light touch, showing Xandri’s hesitance and discomfort and Diver’s efforts to make space for her, but without getting bogged down in trauma details.
Xandri is still attracted to Kiri as well. The book goes out of its way to remind us that Kiri is polyamorous, and even has a scene of the three of them tiredly cuddling, but Xandri is already overwhelmed by dealing with romantic feelings for one person, let alone two, so the poly aspect of the story doesn’t get very developed here.
In other “Xandri is the most relatable character” news, some of her exchanges with Diver feel like they could have been taken word for word from me and my nesting partner:
“Don’t be acting like this is your fault, fireball.”I lifted my head in surprise.“Four and a half years,” Diver said, tapping the tip of my nose with a finger. “Long time to know a person, even one who hides as much of herself as you do. But you can’t hide from me, Xan. You try, but I see you. Right now I see a woman who’s too exhausted to be placing blame anywhere.”“I can’t help it,” I whispered.“I know. And you know I’m right.”“Also, insufferable.”
Overall, “Tone of Voice” didn’t grab me in the feels as hard as “Failure to Communicate” but it’s still a lovely book that I really enjoyed. Xandri Corelel is one of my favorite autistic characters out of anything ever, and I sincerely hope to see many more books of her adventures.
The Verdict: Recommended
Disclosure: I have briefly interacted with Kaia Sønderby on Twitter. I read her book by buying an e-copy on Amazon. All opinions expressed here are my own.
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