This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab
This Savage Song (2016) is the first book in the MONSTERS OF VERITY duology by Victoria Schwab and it’s a strong entry point — fast moving, smoothly told, with a compellingly dark premise and engaging, interesting characters. Even better, there’s no drop off in book two (Our Dark Duet), so I can unabashedly recommend the entire story to readers.
The setting is an alternate world where the US broke up after the Vietnam War into nearly a dozen territories. The background isn’t all that important in that we spend all of our time in one capital city in book one and only part of book two in a second city. So it’s enough for our narrative purpose, but Schwab doesn’t bother with deep world-building and that’s fine; its absence isn’t felt at all. The more important context is the wonderful metaphor at the center of the story, which is that ever since something called “The Phenomenon” twelve years earlier, acts of violence create actual monsters:
Violence breeds violence . . . violence breeds. Someone pulls a trigger, sets off a bomb, drives a bus full of tourists off a bridge, and what’s left in the wake isn’t just shell casings, wreckage, bodies. There’s something else. Something bad. An aftermath. A recoil. A reaction to all that anger and pain and death. That’s all the Phenomenon was really, a tipping point.
More specifically, from these acts form three particular types of monsters:
The Corsai seemed to come from violent, but nonlethal acts, and the Malchai stemmed from murders, but the Sunai, it was believed, came from the darkest crimes of all: bombings, shootings, massacres… All that pain and death coalescing into something truly terrible; if a monster’s catalyst informed its nature, then the Sunai were the worst things to go bump in the night.
Corsai are the most numerous, most basic and animalistic, and live underground, coming out at night to prey on humans. The less numerous Malchai are much smarter and somewhat vampire-like (though one particular one has grown tired of the vampire jokes). Most rare of all are the Sunai, whose abilities are a bit of a mystery.
The setting is Verity City, which has been split into North and South since the Phenomenon. The North is ruled by the ruthless former crime-lord Collum Harker, thanks to how he managed to get the Malchai to work for him and the Corsai to obey him; people in the north pay him for protection, represented by medallions that warn the monsters off. The South, meanwhile, is led by a much better man, Henry Flynn, who has adopted the three Sunai as his children. Despite there only being three monsters working for the south, their greater power forced an tenuous truce seven years ago, one that appears to be fraying.
Into all of this step Kate Harker, Collum’s daughter, and August Flynn, one of Henry’s adopted Sunai. Kate has been living at a string of boarding schools ever since her mother’s death in a car accident, but she’s finally forced her father to bring her back home, where she hopes to prove herself worthy of being at his side. To learn more about this new players, and possibly use her as leverage, August goes undercover as a human at Kate’s new school.
Anyone who has read Romeo and Juliet is probably thinking they know exactly where this is going. And yes, the two becomes friends and perhaps more than friends. But only perhaps. Schwab takes her time and lets these two characters fully develop in complex, realistic, and compelling fashion, whether it’s individually as they try to figure out just who they are, in their relationship to each other, or in their relationships with their families, which are complicated to say the least.
The scenes in the school are a concise but spot on encapsulation of that environment. Tone shifts as we move to the two home lives. Kate’s is filled with tension thanks to her dad’s pet Malchai, Sloan, who always seems on the edge of violence, and her father’s own menacing aspect. Meanwhile August’s home life is more of a mix. A similar sense of tension arises from his “brother” and fellow Sunai, Leo, who takes a darker view of the world. Contrasting that is the tenderness that arises in his interaction with the rest of his family, but most especially his “sister” Ilsa, the third Sunai.
The action scenes are well handled, whether they be fight scenes or chase scenes, and Schwab also show a deft hand at suspense in several scenes. A few minor blips do pop up now and then. The big conspiracy/betrayal is a bit predictable and some of the music references feel a bit forced, but these as noted are minor issues and are more than compensated for by the smooth pacing, sharp characterization, and thoughtful metaphor that lies at the center of it all.
I think this is a really good review, and I will probably like these books, but through no fault of yours, I’m reading this review after having read about the Alexandria shootings and the San Francisco shootings today and I have to turn away. Sorry, Bill. I’ll read the whole review later, I promise.