Being born deaf didn’t stop Josh from pursuing his dream of becoming a musician. Not only does he play guitar for the up-and-coming band Eradicate Apathy, but he also makes major contributions to the song writing itself. Josh doesn’t need to hear the music, he can feel it and he can see it. Now, he’s ready to move forward with the band. Their manager has been hard at work lining up bigger and better venues for them to play at and their fan base has only been growing thanks to the tireless social media efforts of the band’s drummer. But it’s not all coming up roses. Several months ago, tragedy struck the band that left them with a need to find a new bassist. They found EZ and he works out well enough, but Josh has never liked him and it is clear to Josh that EZ harbors a mystifyingly deep contempt for Josh. When EZ goes too far one time too many, he is out of the band. The relief of jettisoning the brutish bassist quickly turns to panic when the band realizes they have mere days to find a replacement before they play Rocktoberfest, the biggest concert for them to date and a festival that often makes or breaks bands.
Enter Branston “Bran” Vale, formerly of the band Red Badger. Bran has his own traumatic past, but if there was one band that could coax him back into the live music scene after years away, it would be Eradicate Apathy. Bran knows they’re small, but he’s also cocksure their star is about to go supernova and he’s chuffed for the chance to be there for even part of the ride. Plus, Bran has heard about Josh and his being deaf and Bran is impressed by the younger man. He isn’t expecting the flare of attraction when he and Josh first meet. Bran tries his damnedest to put a lid on his X-rated interest, but when he discovers Josh feels the same, they fly into one another’s arms. Intense relief over their mutual desire quickly turns to angst over feelings of unworthiness. Josh is worried a seasoned man like Bran wouldn’t want a younger man like himself for more than a roll in the hay. Similarly, Bran hopes he can keep up with someone who’s just on the cusp of something great. Only time will tell if they have the right stuff to build a real relationship.
Muted Chords is one of twelve titles in the 2022 Road to Rocktoberfest collection. It features a small cast, mostly the members of Josh’s band, Bran, and a handful of others. The storytelling switches between Josh and Bran’s POVs, but everything is told in third person. Despite the title of the collection, the climax of this book wasn’t actually getting to or playing at Rocktoberfest. I thought that worked great because Bran only meets Josh and the rest of Eradicate Apathy a few days before the festival. Although there was a lot of insta-love potential and off-the-charts attraction between Bran and Josh, they are both imagining their feelings are absolutely unrequited. I also thought introducing Bran as a new bassist mere days before a big event showed an interesting aspect of band culture. Bran literally had a day or two to learn the songs before he had to play them on a pretty sizable stage before an audience. I can’t comment on whether something like that would actually happen, but I thought it went a long way towards illustrating that these musicians are talented, that they work well together, and that the music industry can be extremely demanding.
As far as the romance between Bran and Josh goes, if you’re a fan of angst and especially of two would-be lovers mutually pining for each other despite clearly being so attracted to each other…well, this will be absolute catnip for you. I liked the “repress your horniness” vibes that came off Josh and Bran in waves. I was a bit less fond of how some of the cycles get repeated. For example, there are multiple chapters that show Josh and Bran spending time together and getting to know one another. The whole time, they’re vehemently trying to suppress their attraction. And the chapter ends with whichever of them is narrating basically telling themselves to conceal, don’t feel. I just thought this back-and-forth took on a bit of a broken record quality because it appeared so often during the getting-to-know-you stage of the book. That same repetitious quality reappears after Josh and Bran finally admit their feelings and begin a romance, but this time they go on and on about “he doesn’t love me” or “he doesn’t really care about me.” They both do it and they feel that way a lot. It just got to be a bit tiresome after the umpteeth time.
Even with the copious repetition, the alternating POVs let me appreciate that Josh’s and Bran’s fears about the depth of their feelings not being returned were unfounded. That made it a sweet relief when these two eventually managed to come to terms not just with being in a relationship, but getting comfortable with the idea that they are both equally committed. Bran gets to lift a major load here by admitting that he has some work to do before he can really be a good partner to Josh. Trying to learn sign language is one example, and making sure he considers Josh’s communication needs (e.g. sitting where Josh can see his face unobstructed to read lips/moods) are a couple of examples. During one of these talks, York has the characters touch on a theme that surprisingly wasn’t more present on page: Josh’s deaf identity. We know Josh is deaf, that he has a cochlear implant, that he can hear voices to varying degrees, and he signs. But there is so little discussion about the deaf community. It was a pleasant surprise that York mentioned it at all, but Josh mentions to Bran that deafness has its own language, a culture, and sometimes polarizing views on implants. This wasn’t discussed in great detail, but I was thrilled there was at least serious mention of these aspects of Josh’s non-band life in the book.
Finally, while I started the book thinking the band and Rocktoberfest would be the main drivers of the plot, it turned out it was actually Josh and Bran’s relationship that carried the book. Especially after Rocktoberfest ends (the catalyst that brought Josh and Bran together), the whole story feels like it shifts in tone a little bit. The other band members are still present, but they only seem to offer perfunctory performances “chiming in” when the group is asked a question. The overall narration and my sense of the story’s timeline both zoom way out. Up until about Rocktoberfest, I got a sense of immediacy from the narration. There were blow-by-blow descriptions of what was going on in the characters’ lives. After the festival, it felt like events were speeding by with only a cursory summary from the narrator. It all was working towards getting the plot to the right point in time for a major eleventh-hour drama bomb. Personally, I thought this organization was a bit weak. The big twist does tie up a loose end I admittedly had written off, but I didn’t think it helped develop the narrative surrounding the band or reveal anything new about Josh and Bran’s relationship.
All in all, I thought this was a pretty good book. I was extremely interested in a story about a rock band with a deaf member. Everyone except Josh is hearing, so there is a very specific kind of portrayal of deafness here. The book doesn’t really explore deaf culture, but Josh at least mentions that being deaf isn’t a condition, it’s a culture and an identity and it’s filled with different tribes just like any other culture. If you’re a fan of age-difference romances or slow-burns, or if you like angsty pining, then I think you’ll find a lot to enjoy in this story.