This Savage Song by Victoria SchwabThis Savage Song by Victoria Schwab fantasy book reviewsThis 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.

Published in 2016. There’s no such thing as safe in a city at war, a city overrun with monsters. In this dark urban fantasy from acclaimed author Victoria Schwab, a young woman and a young man must choose whether to become heroes or villains—and friends or enemies—with the future of their home at stake. The first of two books, This Savage Song is a must-have for fans of Holly Black, Maggie Stiefvater, and Laini Taylor. Kate Harker and August Flynn are the heirs to a divided city—a city where the violence has begun to breed actual monsters. All Kate wants is to be as ruthless as her father, who lets the monsters roam free and makes the humans pay for his protection. All August wants is to be human, as good-hearted as his own father, to play a bigger role in protecting the innocent—but he’s one of the monsters. One who can steal a soul with a simple strain of music. When the chance arises to keep an eye on Kate, who’s just been kicked out of her sixth boarding school and returned home, August jumps at it. But Kate discovers August’s secret, and after a failed assassination attempt the pair must flee for their lives. In This Savage Song, Victoria Schwab creates a gritty, seething metropolis, one worthy of being compared to Gotham and to the four versions of London in her critically acclaimed fantasy for adults, A Darker Shade of Magic. Her heroes will face monsters intent on destroying them from every side—including the monsters within.


  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.