Death and Life in a Great American City: City of Savages by Lee Kelly

Saga Press is Simon & Schuster’s newest imprint, specialising in science fiction and fantasy. Their opening line-up includes well-known names like Genevieve Valentine and Ken Liu. It also includes Lee Kelly’s debut, City of Savages, a novel set in a postapocalyptic future where the island of Manhattan is a prison camp populated by fewer than a thousand people.

It’s been sixteen years since the invasion of New York. For sisters Phee and Sky, the depopulated city is all they’ve known. Their mother, Sarah, doesn’t talk about the past. She especially doesn’t talk about why Rolladin, the New Yorker who’s their prison warden in the absence of the “Red Allies,” treats their family differently from the other prisoners.

Contains spoilers for the novel’s most significant reveal.

The sisters don’t really expect their lives to change, but when they uncover a shocking secret, they find themselves—with their mother and a handful of mysterious strangers—on the run through the ruins of New York. Along the way, they’re going to discover things their mother has always kept hidden from them—and learn that nothing in their world is precisely as they’ve thought.

The great thing about teenage protagonists is that they can act in ways that really are Too Stupid To Live—such as saying to someone who has no reason to love them, and who’s in the middle of committing murder, “You don’t have to do this!”—and it’s perfectly believable. Because adolescents are generally extremely bad at judging risk. This goes a long way in making me sympathetic to the rash, headlong behaviour of Kelly’s protagonists: they’re still too young to know better.

Also, it’s fun.

Debut novels are tricky. They’re usually a mix of the works really well and the well, oops. City of Savages leans more to the works really well end of the spectrum: it’s told in alternating first-person present-tense viewpoints split approximately evenly between the two sisters. It’s tough to write with enough nuance that it’s easy to distinguish between two first-person narrators of similar ages and with similar histories, but Kelly pulls it off. Phee comes across as tough and brash and really terrible at risk assessment, while Sky is much more thoughtful and introspective. Both of them are extremely protective of each other, and of their mother. The atmosphere of the depopulated city is, in its own way, haunting: there is a layer of emptiness and solitude—of alienation—that intertwines with the characters’ personal journeys. Neither Sky nor Phee know much about their mother’s past: they uncover it only when they find and begin to secretly read their mother’s journal from the invasion of New York. Journal entries from the past are interspersed with the faster-paced, more hectic present, and underscore the novel’s thematic argument with the tension between freedom and necessity, love and survival, and the complicated nature of loyalty and family.

There are moments, though, when Kelly slips towards cliché and narrative contrivance. Tunnel-dwelling cannibals, that postapocalyptic staple, are active in the subways of Manhattan after sixteen years. People who’ve “lost themselves in the dark.” The outbreak of WWIII in the story’s past partakes a bit much of Yellow Peril—of course it’s China’s fault, who else’s could it be? And of course the religious leader of a secret, subaltern group of survivors has lost touch with reality, is in possession of a god complex, drugs and brainwashes people, keeps a harem and marries women off young. Because that’s not, heaven knows, the most predictable cliché in the history of postapocalyptic clichés. (If someone says “missionaries”? Run.) An old friend of the sisters’ mother shows up at an extraordinarily convenient point for narrative progress, and just at the right point to set the story going in another direction—but after sixteen years’ with him being presumed dead, it’s just a little bit too coincidental. And it’s never quite explained how it happens that he should cross their paths now, of all times.

The most interesting relationship in City of Savages, though, is one that’s told in elisions and silences and between the lines of journal entries: the relationship between Sarah and her sister-in-law, Mary, Phee and Sky’s aunt. Mary, who kept Sarah and her child alive during the invasion, who protected Sarah until her second child could be born, and who in the absence of Sarah’s husband became Sarah’s lover. Mary, whose full name is Mary Rolladin, and who became the collaborating prison warden whose rule in Manhattan is all that Phee and Sky have ever known.

It’s a family relationship that pays off for the teenagers, in the end. But the ending doesn’t quite stick its dismount. It doesn’t feel entirely earned, because it relies on the complicated history of a relationship the reader never sees directly.

Ultimately, it turns out, the characters that City of Savages is most concerned with aren’t the characters that I find most interesting. The story of Sky and Phee is open and uncomplicated compared to the history lurking in the background: and it makes City of Savages feel to me like something of a missed opportunity.

It’s a solid debut, an entertaining novel with the feel of Young or New Adult about it. The prose is clean and effective, and the narrative voice has energy and character. I’m looking forward to seeing what Kelly does next.

City of Savages is available February 3rd from Saga Press.

Liz Bourke is a cranky person who reads books. Her blog. Her Twitter.


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