Review: This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab

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In some far future in what used to be the midwest of the United States, monsters walk the streets of V-City at night. If a human commits violence, a monster comes to life as a result of the crime. The Corsai are violent maulers, and the Malchai are emaciated vampires. The mysterious Sunnai, that most rare of monsters, eat souls. Not only are they the most destructive, no one knows what they look like, and that makes them the most dangerous monsters of all.

Kate Harker is a human who wants to be a monster. The daughter of the crime boss who rules half of V-City, she’s gotten herself kicked out of six boarding schools so she can return to be with her father. She’ll prove one way or another that she’s a Harker, her father’s daughter, and worthy of his time and attention.

August Flynn is a monster who wants to be human. He lives on the other half of V-City, the side where humans decided to fight the monsters rather than pay exorbitant fees for Callum Harker’s protection. August and his two siblings look human but are all Sunnai, and they live with the man who runs the task force dedicated to monster hunting and crime prevention. August is tired of being who he is and the things he’s capable of doing when he doesn’t eat for too long.

Kate and August are two sides of a coin, and they are both able to see the city for what it is, and each other as the people they truly are. As the power structure in V-City teeters and threatens to make collateral damage of Kate and August, the two of them are on the run for their lives to save the city, themselves, and each other.

In the past I’ve read and greatly enjoyed Victoria Schwab’s adult fantasy books A Darker Shade of Magic and A Gathering of Shadows (written under V. E. Schwab). This Savage Song is the first YA book of hers I’ve read, and unfortunately I was majorly disappointed. Instead of being a compelling story of the interplay between being a monster and a human, it was shallow and flat. Unlike many of my friends, I enjoy reading and spending time with monstrous characters, but I’m not someone who loves villains and monsters on principle. What I love about the idea of monsters and monstrosity in fiction is what it means or represents from a cultural and societal standpoint. This is why I love N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate and Frances Hardinge’s Cuckoo Song (to give two examples). In these books, monstrosity is the result of the blurred intersection between society calling people monsters and those so-called monsters acting monstrous, and the conundrum that arises from the gap of who these characters are (is society right? Can they define their own selves?) versus who these characters want to be (can they stop being a monster now that they’ve done monstrous things? Will other people ever not see them as monsters?)

In comparison, the existence of monsters in This Savage Song is a literal manifestation of human wrongdoing (violence), but not a cultural manifestation. Only violence that involves bloodshed and murder creates a monster, a world-building rule that imposes limitations without a good reason for its existence. It doesn’t make sense why Kate can set an empty church on fire, threaten her classmates with her knife, or kill monsters and not bringing a monster to life as a result of her actions, yet when she shoots a man in self-defense, that’s what creates a monster and stains her soul red. The arbitrary definition of what kind of violence creates a monster also ignores emotional violence, sexual violence, and the aforementioned self-defense.

The world-building behind the types of monsters is similarly arbitrary. The Corsai are entirely animalistic. (Callum Harker appears to have found a way to control them, but it’s unclear how.) The Malchai are sentient and have humanoid appearances, but all of them are portrayed as evil, and none of them have a problem with killing people. Only the Sunnai seem capable or willing to engage with their monstrous identity and the fact that they need human souls to stay alive and to not lose control, and it’s through the Sunnai that Victoria Schwab explores the idea behind committing violence for the greater good to prevent even more, worse violence in the future. Which is all fine and good, but then what purpose do the Corsai and Malchai serve besides convenient plot obstacles and antagonists? Why write a book about monstrosity and have only one of the three kinds of monsters be even capable of wrestling with that concept?

I also wasn’t keen on the concept of monstrosity being tied to the soul. If a human commits bloodshed and/or murder, not only do their actions create a monster, but it stains their soul red, and it’s the souls of these people that the Sunnai eat. And I get that this detail is likely meant to reference the idea that you lose a part of your humanity or your soul after you’ve murdered someone, but the fact that it’s the state of a human’s soul that determines whether someone’s created a monster or is fodder for a Sunnai smacks of Christian ideas about “goodness” and morality tied to the state of your soul. That’s not inherently bad, but it is boring and not particularly original.

My problem with This Savage Song can be boiled down to the fact that “monsters” and “monstrosity” in this book did not originate out of the human society/city/culture that the monsters live among, but instead feel super-imposed upon the quasi-United-States-city. I don’t think there’s even a way to fully wrestle with monsters vs. humans without rooting both in the cultures they live amongst and inform how people see and interact with them. This Savage Song suffers from a problem that lots of YA books have, which is the setting being painfully, generically US-ian with no other distinguishing features. Supposedly this is an urban fantasy, yet the strength of urban fantasy is its setting, and the fact that the city is as much a character as the actual characters. With no discernable culture or societal mores within V-City, the exploration of the monstrous in This Savage Song is equally generic.

Things I did enjoy include Kate Harker, whose ruthlessness I loved. She reminded me somewhat of Sarah Manning from Orphan Black—she fights desperately and ingeniously, with no holds barred. I found August to be less compelling, but I did appreciate the friendship that developed between him and Kate, and I especially appreciated the lack of romance.

On the whole, I did not enjoy This Savage Song. I loved the ideas that inspired the book, but the execution fell flat. Similar to the adult books of Victoria Schwab’s that I’ve read, her characters are well-written while the world-building suffers in comparison. I still plan to read A Conjuring of Light come 2017 and maybe try some of her other YA books, which hopefully I will find more enjoyable.

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