The Story of Silence is a lyrical, dreamy retelling of a medieval poem, which offers a consideration of gender and identity that feels surprisingly modern.
Book: The Story of Silence by Alex Myers
Read before: No
Ownership: I won a copy from the publisher on Twitter. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: Attempted sexual assault; misogyny and generally outdated ideas about women; depictions of dysphoria; interrogations of gender and transition, including outdated attitudes to both; discussions of rape and false rape accusation.
One of the most common tropes of historical and fantasy fiction is the girl who dresses up as a boy to achieve her goals. We see it across the world in folklore, and it continues to be a popular trope in novels even today. The Story of Silence takes an interesting approach and interrogates that trope, asking whether some of those ‘disguised girls’ might actually have been boys after all, and whether we should even be trying to apply a modern gender binary to these stories in the first place. The plot of this book is a reworking of a medieval French poem: a lord, frustrated by the inheritance laws of Britain, raises his daughter, Silence, as a boy, and we follow that child as they struggle to come to terms with their own identity and find their place in the world as a knight. It’s a tale worthy of a ballad, full of daring deeds, chivalry, and even an appearance from Merlin!
In a weird coincidence, I have actually read the original poem (though translated into English) as part of a medieval romance binge while I was at university (no, I didn’t study literature, I was just a nerd), and I thought that Myers did a good job of transferring the atmosphere into novel format. The story feels very romantic and dreamy in the way that many Arthurian tales do, with just a few touches of magic that move it from the realms of history into the realms of legend, and this is reinforced by the fact that we start the story before SIlence is even born, tying them into a wider world of knightly history. I really enjoyed the first section, the overview of Silence’s father’s history, which suited this episodic, balladic style, but I didn’t think it quite worked once the story drew in to focus on Silence in real time. The story is framed as Silence is telling their own history to a bard, and I felt like this created a level of detachment between the layers of the story that destroyed some of the immediacy of it; Silence is actively choosing their words and telling us about the past in a way that felt somewhat artificially objective. I felt as if I was having things explained to me rather than experiencing it along with them, and I will admit that I ended up taking a long break in the middle of the book as I was struggling to connect to it. It’s beautifully written, and the prose sweeps you along the page – it’s certainly easier to read than, say, a direct translation of the poem! – but the overall pace is glacial, and the narration just left me a little too outside the story and not hugely invested in what happened next – I cared about Silence as a person, but not their adventure, as it seemed to have no purpose. I suppose that’s one of the difficulties in writing a story where the protagonist themself is looking for a purpose – it’s easy to slip into aimlessness.
I’m not the right reviewer to get deep into the nuances of how gender identity and dysphoria are discussed as part of the story, and I encourage you to seek out reviews from trans and genderfluid readers (there are several good reviews on Goodreads already). I will also note that the author is a trans man. What I will say is that Silence as a character feels very realistic, and it’s easy to empathise with them as they ponder whether their nature or their upbringing is more a reflection of their ‘real’ self; there are several very powerful scenes. Their struggle with identity is clearly articulated in a way that makes it impossible not to root for them to break out of all these social restrictions and live comfortably in their own way. In the original poem, personified figures of ‘Nature’ and ‘Nurture’ argue over Silence’s gender – the author opted to deal with this in a much more realistic, and I think powerful, way, by keeping Silence centre stage. Silence’s experience will definitely make you think long and hard about all those girls ‘disguised’ as boys (and as an aside, I note that even Tamora Pierce, the queen of this trope, is on record as saying Alanna would likely identify as genderfluid today). I would have loved the book to balance these moments of emotional intimacy with the more objective narration, as a tighter viewpoint from Silence would have made this book a five star read for me, I think.
Overall, this is a fascinating book, and one I definitely recommend to people looking for historical fiction that incorporates queerness at its very core. I’m not entirely sure the story itself was compelling enough for me, mostly due to the detachment created by the narrative style, but if you persevere, this book has some very interesting things to say. Three and a half out of five cats!