Title: Strange Sweet Song
Author: Adi Rule
Publisher: St Martin’s Griffith
Release Date: 11th March 2014
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy, Paranormal
Page Count: 336 (paperback)
Strange Sweet song is the beautiful story of a young soprano coming to terms with her opera star mother’s death, her famous conductor father’s plans for her, and discovering her own identity amongst the gothic conservatory of Durhammond, where her favourite opera Angelique was inspired and written.
The soprano’s name is Sing, but don’t hold that against her. She knows it’s stupid, we know it’s stupid, the author knows it’s stupid. It is at once a name and a command, a promise of her future, given to her by a diva mother and an obsessed father.
Sing. Is it even her name anymore, or is it merely a word? An order? Given by whom?
Sing is a realistic heroine, unsure of herself, not drop-dead gorgeous, and even her angelic voice has its flaws. She’s living in the shadow of her mother and being groomed by her pushy father who both wants to give the world to her but to also make her earn it, who wants to present Sing as a replacement for her mother. Sing knows something is wrong with her voice – it’s hard to crack it in a novel, being a visual medium, but I believe Sing was imitating her own mother’s singing rather than using her own voice, so that later in the novel when she finally does come into her own voice it’s spectacular and wonderful.
Sing’s dress isn’t ready for dress rehearsal. It’s still being altered. She’s thicker than Lori, shorter. Lori is a swan. Sing is a duck.
Also, I love how not everyone loves Sing. Sing’s not your typical YA heroine, a passive, waif-like gentle doormat whom everyone loves and adores and wants to help because she’s so gentle and good and deserving. Nor is she a name-taking, ass kicking babe. People use her, like her, dislike her, hate her. To me, the mix of different relationships seemed very realistic. Sing’s own behaviour was also understandable: she’s no angel, but deep down she is a good girl who wants to please, and gets sick of being walked over as the daughter of two world-famous musicians, even though she partly believes she’s too privileged and undeserving. She toughens up, but then realises taking what she wants by force is no way to get what she deserves.
I’m not operatically trained (because fuck that, have you any idea how hard opera singers work?) but I am classically trained and I knew from the way Adi Rule wrote about singing and music, and really got inside Sing’s head as she was singing, that Rule was a singer herself, and she is. A professional one with the Boston Pops. I’ve read a handful of novels about musicians and a few about singers, but absolutely none of them have had the depth and knowledge and literally the experience of what it’s actually like to be a real singer – not someone who sings with no knowledge of correct technique, but a real singer in one of the oldest, strictest techniques of singing. I was constantly amazed at how deeply this novel went into technique and thought process and the sheer effort of singing opera. Every time Sing opened her mouth I thought, Yes, that’s exactly what it’s like.
She backs off, worried that if she pushes too hard, the sound will become wobbly or, worse, break altogether. She can’t move her jaw. She tries to decrescendo on the last note, but the bottom just drops out and she’s left with a weak little whine.
Although this novel has a romance in it, it’s not a novel about the romance. It’s not a romance novel. Although the romance is so slow-burning it’s almost unexpected, and I was pleasantly surprised when I realised what was happening. It’s also my absolute favourite kind of romance, the kind where the lovers hate each other at first. This means that the author has to do a lot of work redeeming the love interest to get me to like them, and I’m pleased to say that Rule achieves that.
It’s a novel about singing, about this young, grieving girl trying to find her own place and her own voice amongst all the pressure of living up to her mother’s fame and her father’s expectation, and trying not to use her family’s wealth, privilege and name to take short cuts or lord over the other students. Add on to that Sing’s absolute love for an opera called Angelique, of which she is desperate to sing the lead role, a role her mother dominated but wouldn’t let Sing sing, and the very role she died for, and also did I mention Sing’s father doesn’t want Sing singing it? (Did I mention how frustrating Sing’s name is?)
“Sing,” Zhin said, only it sounded different now. It wasn’t quite sing, it was thin and strange and lovely. “It means ‘star’ in Chinese. Like in the sky.”
Rule deftly weaves real music through the book alongside what I believe is a made-up opera. While there is an opera bouffant called Angelique, I can’t find very much information on it. I think it’s a French one-act opera, and as far as I’m aware there is no magical space cat that grants wishes to those in utter despair. Sing’s Angelique is Italian, and Rule even gives us lyrics. But I totally believed there was a beautiful little-known opera called Angelique while I was reading the book. That’s how realistic Rule makes it seem – I had to do some research to find out if all this was based on some kind of true story -Durhammond, Angelique, the rumour of the magical space cat.
Sometimes I worry that belief and hope are the same thing, and that truth is something else entirely.
I felt that by the last quarter of the novel, after the point of no return when everything was ripped away from Sing and I couldn’t possibly see how she could achieve her goals AND find love AND make peace with the magical space cat, it was ever so slightly predictable (based on how a novel must follow a plot for a happily ever after) how things were going to go down, but I was still rooting for Sing and wanted everything to work out okay for her.
Probably my biggest criticism, besides the competition between Sing and just about every other musician in the novel, was that the first half of the novel was quite slow. The point of view flips between Sing, the magical space cat, and a third point of view character called George that only becomes relevant much later in the novel. I found these other points of view a bit boring and not entirely relevant, and skimmed them in the first half of the novel. I also found the change in tenses, although completely relevant, a bit annoying. I personally don’t much enjoy third person present tense, and I would have really liked to go further inside Sing’s head in first person. But overall I don’t really think that detracted from my enjoyment. I have been known to enjoy present tense.
Other than that, it was a glorious book, well written, well researched, and well characterised. I read an ARC but I’m buying the hardcover book because this is one I’ll re-read over and over again.
Thanks to Netgalley and St Martin’s Griffin for providing an advanced reader copy for an honest review.