Review: Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-GarciaSignal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Published by Solaris on February 10th, 2015
Genres: Fantasy
Format: Paperback
Source: Ottawa Library
Rating: two-stars

Mexico City, 1988: Long before iTunes or MP3s, you said “I love you” with a mixtape. Meche, awkward and fifteen, has two equally unhip friends -- Sebastian and Daniela -- and a whole lot of vinyl records to keep her company. When she discovers how to cast spells using music, the future looks brighter for the trio. With help from this newfound magic, the three friends will piece together their broken families, change their status as non-entities, and maybe even find love...

Mexico City, 2009: Two decades after abandoning the metropolis, Meche returns for her estranged father’s funeral. It’s hard enough to cope with her family, but then she runs into Sebastian, and it revives memories from her childhood she thought she buried a long time ago. What really happened back then? What precipitated the bitter falling out with her father? And, is there any magic left?

My first encounter with Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s writing was her short story collection This Strange Way of Dying. At the time, I was very impressed with the vivid atmosphere she was able to create: something dark and magical, fascinating yet creepy. I enjoyed how she thoroughly embraced her Mexican roots in her writing and immersed the reader in her world. However, I found the storytelling a bit weak, and often, I wasn’t sure what the short story I had just read was about.
Fast forward to Moreno-Garcia’s first novel Signal to Noise: a couple of bullied teenagers discover a way to cast magic through music. How are they going to nurture this new power? How is it going to affect their life and their relationship? Aren’t you intrigued? I was!

The Federal District lay below, a great beast with no beginning and no end, towers and buildings rising and dotting the valley. The roads were twisted snakes criss-crossing its surface, the cars tiny ants racing to their anthill. Twenty million people all gathered together—smashed against each other in the subway, crammed into the buses—with the Angel of Independence saluting them from above its pedestal.

As expected, it took Moreno-Garcia exactly one paragraph—the first one—to bring me back in her universe. The one where a district of Mexico City is a “beast”, the roads are “twisted snakes”, and people are “smashed against each other”. Mexico City with a twist. A dark magic twist.
The very new and original ingredient in Signal to Noise is pop music, mostly from the 80’s, when most of the story takes place. Meche, the main character, is constantly playing music. If she’s not putting a record on at home, she’s using her Walkman (you do remember what a Walkman is, right?) and just like nowadays we share playlists on Spotify, Meche names every single song she listens to. I really enjoyed this aspect of the book! I often check Wikipedia when I read books, but checking Spotify was a first. I, for instance, discovered the mesmerizing Gracias a la Vida by Mercedes Sosa. For that, thank you!

Unfortunately, I’m now out of positive comments about Signal to Noise. While the atmosphere was spot on, the story disappointed me dearly. It seems to me that the plot struggles to take off and the narrative lacks stamina.
First, there wasn’t enough dramatic tension or suspense around the major events in the book. New developments just popped up suddenly, with no previous cues. It often feels very artificial, if not far-fetched. For instance, the story starts with a boy in high school slipping in the stairs. At the very same moment, Meche was flipping the cassette in her Walkman. She instantly makes a connection:

A few minutes later as she was walking to Arts and Crafts, she realized it had not been a coincidence. It couldn’t be a coincidence.
It was the record’s fault.

It made so little sense to me that at first, I thought I was supposed to understand that Meche was nuts. Not so!

As the story goes on, it’s not quite clear if the novel is trying to explore high school friendship or magic. After Meche dragged her two friends, the girly Daniela and grumpy Sebastian, into magic exploration, they try various vinyl records (even though the first “spell” was cast with a cassette) and make various uncreative wishes, such as making the school’s principal croak and throw up in front of all the students. However, most of their time is spent in petty bickering. I didn’t find that exciting.

Which brings me to my main grievance about the novel: I found Meche entirely unrelatable. From the start, she is rude, selfish and obnoxious. Unfortunately, her newfound power progressively makes her even worst. Her friend Sebastian is passively enduring her, which I found very frustrating. And Daniela, whom I found to be the most entertaining and colourful character, has very little weight in their relationship. I also found their conversations and arguments very childish, even considering the characters are teens. I just couldn’t relate at all.

“Why are you being a hard-ass?” Meche asked him.
“I’m not.”
(…)
“You think you’re better than us,” he said.
“Oh?”
“At magic.”
“Maybe a tad,” she said with a shrug. “I figured out the whole spell thing, didn’t I?”
“At life.”
“What are you—”
“I just want you to know, I don’t agree with what you are making us do.”
“I’m not making you do anything. We took a vote. You lost.”
“You can’t push Daniela around all the time.”
“Loser.”
“You think I’m joking?”
“Blah, I’m bored,” Meche said.

This being said, I believe that any book that expands your horizon is worth reading. I loved being immersed in 1980’s Mexico City, and I enjoyed all the music references. I did listen to many titles mentioned in the book and appreciated the experience. Do I regret reading Signal to Noise? No. I still believe Silvia Moreno-Garcia has the potential to bloom into a fantastic novelist, with a rich and engrossing world of her own.
This being said, Signal to Noise is a sad disappointment. The story is closer to a middle-school drama than a fantasy fiction and the characters can be hard to sympathize with. I believe this one won’t be her best novel, and I’m very willing to read her next one.
Also, don’t read this book when you’re hungry, there are so many references to traditional food that after a few pages, your belly starts growling!