My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Length: 464 pages
Release date: 5 July 2016
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.
“Monsters, monsters, big and small,
They’re gonna come and eat you all.
Corsai, Corsai, tooth and claw,
Shadow and bone will eat you raw.
Malchai, Malchai, sharp and sly,
Smile and bite and drink you dry.
Sunai, Sunai, eyes like coal,
Sing you a song and steal your soul.”
Some authors write so beautifully that they could sell you just about any premise and you’d eat it up wholesale. Victoria Schwab is one such writer. Unlike a lot of “popcorn read” YA novels, This Savage Song treats itself as a work of art, and proves every bit worthy of the designation.
The writing, the way Schwab strings words together, is essentially flawless. I’d give it a 6 out of 5 if I could. It’s refined and lyrical in the way that suggests an author who knows she is talented but still refrains from rushing the editing process and puts in the effort to go above and beyond. There are passages that run just like music, surreal and mysterious, which fits when you consider that music is one of the two protagonists’ raison d’être. This Savage Song would be an incredible movie/musical with the right composer. (Personally, for August’s melody, I imagine something like Light of the Seven, but of course that’s very much up to individual interpretation–as is the advantage with books.)
If this book has any weaknesses they lie on the side of plot, which is still 99% solid if somewhat predictable. Villain reveals are a little lacklustre as it’s obvious from the start who the antagonists will be; characters who give off evil vibes are, unsurprisingly, evil. For such a nuanced premise–the Sunai are paragons of moral parsimony, while Kate is the ultimate exercise in inner conflict–the book fails to explore its full potential of ethical dilemmas and grey areas.
That said, the story is easy to follow, and pacing is great. This Savage Song is aptly described by the gradually heating bathtub analogy: At the beginning, the water is at room temperature and everything seems normal. Kate is your typical rebellious teenager; August is your typical asocial teenager. Then things just happen and happen until suddenly they’re running from their lives from Eldritch abominations, and the bathtub is boiling you alive. The most important thing here is, if the beginning seems slow or confusing, don’t give up yet. Stick with it and push through to the good stuff. Victoria Schwab has a remarkable skill for exposition that slowly drip feeds you the backstory, never taking large breaks from the action to provide info dumps.
Character development, again, is downright wonderful. Even characters with very little screen time feel like fully realised personalities. I’m throwing in a shoutout to Ilsa. She’s criminally underused, and I adore her. Narrators Kate and August are both intensely compelling. Both go through traditional narrative struggles–Kate is the Zuko archetype fighting for her cruel father’s approval against her better nature, and August is literally a monster caught between the demands of his identity and his desire to possess human empathy.
Victoria Schwab hasn’t invented anything genre-breaking here. We’ve seen both of these tropes a hundred times in films, TV series, and novels. What makes this story in particular so good is the execution. The dual perspective, alternating between each of the equally important protagonists and limiting us to their POVs exclusively, means that I as a reader don’t just acknowledge Kate and August’s emotions. I live them. They are my only conduit into this dystopian world, and I’m convinced that makes their journeys all the more relatable.
An extra bit of spice to the dynamic can be found in the observation that there are a couple interesting trope subversions. This Savage Song neatly dodges the enemies-to-lovers trope, keeping Kate and August firmly in the territory of friends who have been through hell separately and together and understand each other better than anyone else could. I’m a huge fan of enemies-to-lovers, but I have a hunch that this book would not have been quite as entrancing had it gone that route. Schwab just writes the friendship so damn well. Then there’s the gender subversion of their backgrounds. Kate is the crime heir with a shitty childhood who needs to be “fixed,” and the worldlier, more hardened, and not to mention older of the pair. August partly plays an emotional crutch role for her, but thankfully it never gets in the way of his own character development.
I’ll add that I don’t completely buy the history of this world, but then again, that’s a criticism I have for practically every YA dystopia ever. At the end of the day, how Verity got to the point that it did isn’t really relevant. (Really, though, where did the planes go? It kind of nags me that there’s not a single mention of how air travel completely disappeared even in a society that appears to be on par with or slightly ahead of us in technology.)
Regardless of minor wrinkles here and there, This Savage Song is enchanting. Kate and August, elevated by Victoria Schwab’s soulful way with words, shine as an iconic power couple who aren’t technically a couple. It’s platonic West Side Story with monsters, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.