A girl who wants to be a monster and a monster who wants to be a boy learn that you can’t always get what you want in This Savage Song, a refreshingly unromantic urban fantasy bolstered by a brilliantly built background and a pair of expertly crafted characters more interested in making the best of their bad lots than in bumping uglies.
Though we’re given a gaggle of glimpses of the wasted world that surrounds it on all sides, the first volume of V. E. Schwab’s Monsters of Verity series takes place primarily in V-City, twelve years on from something called the Phenomenon: an apocalypse of sorts which means, for whatever reason, that monsters are born whenever humans do wrong.
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, events that claimed not only one life, but many. 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.
That’s what a lot of the people who live in V-City think, particularly those who’ve chosen to pay for the privilege, but August Flynn is one such Sunai, and he isn’t evil in the least. Sure, he swallows souls whole, but only the souls of sinners, and only then when he absolutely has to.
The saviour who took August in in the wake of whatever catastrophe created him has managed to make lemonade out of those very lemons, however, by using said Sunai’s nightmarish nature to do good. As the founder of the FTF, an organisation which keeps the South side of this split city safe, Henry Flynn has enlisted August and his kin to seek out and eat bad people. He’s also “the only man willing to stand up to a glorified criminal and fight.”
That glorified criminal is Callum Harker, the enterprising mind behind the protection racket that keeps the Corsai and the Malchai at bay beyond the bounds of Henry’s territory, and our other protagonist’s father. Much to mean girl Kate’s frustration, Callum has kept her at a safe distance since the death of her mother in what we can’t help but suspect might have been more than a tragic accident:
At first, she’d pleaded an begged to come home, to stay home, but over time, she stopped. Not because she stopped wanting it, but because she learned that pleading didn’t work on Callum Harker. Pleading was a sign of weakness. So she learned to bury the things that made her weak. The things that made her like her mother.
Kate returned the picture frame to the bedside table and looked down at her hands. Her lungs hurt from the smoke but her hands had stopped shaking, and she considered the black blood staining her fingers, not with horror but with grim determination.
She was her father’s daughter. A Harker.
And she would do whatever she had to do to prove it.
By no means the worst of the things Kate has to do to demonstrate her value to her father is take her schooling seriously—so off to Colton Academy she goes, determined to dominate her classmates as she one day will the weaklings living on the North side of V-City.
August, in the interim, has been going a bit stir-crazy stuck in the fortress Henry has made of his home, so, a plea or three for some form of freedom later, he’s given a false name and dispatched to the aforementioned academy. He’s under instruction to keep a close eye on Kate in the hope that it’ll give the Flynns a little extra leverage in the event that the tenuous truce between their powerful parents’ breaks… but screw the stakes. With so much in common, and such great expectations on both of their shoulders, oddball August and Harker’s hellion become fast friends instead of arch enemies:
He was a Sunai—nothing was going to change that—but he wasn’t evil, wasn’t cruel, wasn’t monstrous. He was just someone who wanted to be something else, something he wasn’t.
Kate understood the feeling.
Schwab stops short of stating that Kate and August are properly star-cross’d, and as I touched on at the start of this dance, This Savage Song is no paranormal romance—that said, the Monsters of Verity has only just begun, and the factors of fate and family so central to Shakespeare’s amorous tragedy have pivotal parts to play in all that follows, as this supernatural coming of age tale gives way to a propulsively paced chase and escape that turns from thrilling to chilling in an instant.
This Savage Song’s emotional story is especially successful because the author does such a damn fine job of layering depth and complexity upon her central characters before leaving them at the last in the line of fire.
Kate is a tearaway, to be sure, but she’s confused, too—about a certain something that happened in the past, and about what she wants from the future, furthermore. It’s understandable that she seeks her father’s approval, but she’s human enough to know that he’s a bad man, so the terrible things she does to impress him, she does with her eyes wide open.
August, on the other hand, is a bit of an innocent, being only four years old. He wants nothing but the best for everyone, yet there’s a hunger in him; an all-encompassing hunger he struggles so hard to hold back in spite of the knowledge that the wall he’s built around it will fall. The question isn’t if, it’s when—and who’ll be beneath it?
Schwab’s world comes together wonderfully as well. Never mind how neat the idea animating it is, that monsters can only come to be because of our deeds, as aspects of “a cycle of whimpers and bangs, gruesome beginnings and bloody ends,” though it is—neat, I mean: how she follows through with a fascinating infrastructure built around the existence of these three lethal species is This Savage Song‘s real pièce de résistance.
Now not everything about the first volume of the Monsters of Verity lands so solidly. There’s a predictable conspiracy capped off by a betrayal that means next to nothing to us, and an exponential over-egging of the musical motif that the title touches on—but the fact that the song goes on too long doesn’t mean the thing isn’t worth singing. Indeed, these slight oversights hardly detract from the overall impact of Schwab’s newest novel, which delivers on so much of its sonorous promise that I thrill at the thought of an encore performance.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.