My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Length: 510 pages
Release date: 13 June 2017
KATE HARKER isn’t afraid of monsters. She hunts them. And she’s good at it.
AUGUST FLYNN once yearned to be human. He has a part to play. And he will play it, no matter the cost.
THE WAR HAS BEGUN.
THE MONSTERS ARE WINNING.
Kate will have to return to Verity. August will have to let her back in. And a new monster is waiting—one that feeds on chaos and brings out its victims’ inner demons.
Which will be harder to conquer: the monsters they face, or the monsters within?
“You’re wrong,” said Kate, turning her back on him. “There’s one kind of lie even you can tell. Do you know what it is?” She met his gaze in the steel doors. “The kind you tell yourself.”
Okay, this book destroyed me.
I’ve just been so conflicted about Our Dark Duet since finishing it. Eventually I decided that I would have to do this review in two parts: The first part being like a normal review, addressing from an objective point of view what the author did well and what could have been improved (for Victoria Schwab, though, the answer is typically “not much”). And the second part being a semi-rant that hopefully explains just why I feel so torn. Here’s your first of two warnings: The second part will involve spoilers. Lots of them.
But before we get there, here’s your normal review:
Part One of the Overdramatic Review
After finishing the Monsters of Verity duology, it’s clear that I went into Our Dark Duet with overly high expectations. It’s excusable in that I was fresh off reading This Savage Song, one of the best YA novels I found in 2017, for the first time. At the same time, it leaves me questioning whether my gut instinct too harsh on the sequel. For that reason, after a long internal debate between whether to go with 3 stars or 4 on Goodreads, I decided to round my rating up. Our Dark Duet traverses much darker territory than its predecessor to mixed levels of success, sacrificing the phenomenal character development that made the first book amazing in its dedication to stay brutal and explore its protagonists’ ugly sides.
First off, the good stuff. Worldbuilding is satisfying–we get to see a lot more of how Verity works re: logistics (e.g. how its power grid works, where the city’s food works from) and the surrounding territories, represented by a laughably normal-feeling Prosperity. It feels like a bucket of cold water dumped over the head when we first see how a city not infested with monsters and ganglike warfare is doing. Here’s a particularly jarring exchange taken straight out of Tales from Retail:
“Welcome to coffee bean,” she said with all the false cheer she could muster. “What can I get started for you?”
The woman on the other side of the counter didn’t smile. “Do you have coffee?”
Kate looked from the wall of grinders and machines, to the patrons clutching cups, to the sign above the door. “Yes.”
So sure, there are a few subtle attempts at humour. But more importantly, the heart of the story remains. Thank you, Victoria Schwab, for your ruthlessness. Thank you for showing us the awful purity of the Sunai ideology in all its horror. Thank you for not flinching and giving us the ending we need and don’t want. I am still devastated. I may not agree with the direction the story took, but this is the story that you wanted to tell. You told it well, and nothing can take away from that.
If you’ve read my review of This Savage Song, you know how great I thought every part of that novel was. Plot, characters, poetic writing, imagery, that book has it all. So when I’m about to talk about how Our Dark Duet falls short of its predecessor in a few of these aspects, it’s not meant to be a harsh criticism of the sequel, but rather a simple rundown of the areas in which I was a little underwhelmed.
The characters, sadly, aren’t as strong. They’re still recognisably Schwab, by which I mean you can see what made them great characters in the first place, but they’re a little flaky at the sides. There’s a sharp divide in quality between characters who were in the first book and newly introduced characters, with the latter group feeling a lot less rounded out. Soro, for one, feels more plot device than character. They barely change or develop (if at all), rendering the massive potential of their background. In the end, Soro is the least compelling of the four Sunai in the series.
Riley and the Wardens are even more extraneous–they could have been fascinating personalities in their own right, but instead they’re dropped a third of the way through and never seen again. If the argument for their lack of involvement is that they don’t belong in Verity’s underworld, then there can be no justification for the amount of screen time they’re given in the beginning. Either show us why they matter, or don’t include them at all.
Related to the issue of Soro and the Wardens is the slow pace of Our Dark Duet‘s first half. Simply put, it drags. The moment August and Kate reunite, the spark is reignited, and the plot is able to move forward at a better speed. It’s hard to put to words, but these two have such incredible chemistry. They alone would be reason enough to read this book if everything else were terrible (it isn’t).
This may not be a popular opinion, but I really believe Schwab should have stuck to dual perspectives, as per This Savage Song. Our Dark Duet still gives us August and Kate’s voices, but their chapters are interspersed with Sloan’s perspective, which receives almost as much focus as the two protagonists’. And this is a problem because Sloan is not a compelling villain. He reads like the big bad in a James Bond movie, almost too cartoonish to take seriously with his uninspired sadism. His chapters add nothing beyond repeatedly reinforcing how evil he is. Alice, his right-hand woman, is similarly predictable as what amounts to a depraved vampire. While it’s temporarily enjoyable to read about these two, their chapters stick out like a sore thumb, pure black in a book that’s all about seeing the grey in between.
Essentially, Our Dark Duet misses some of the poetic magic found in the original. Gone is the ethereal beauty of Sunai music. Gone is the Lovecraftian horror of Verity’s monsters. The sequel is a lot darker, maybe too dark, and does away with the mysterious atmosphere that made the first book so intriguing. All the same, this is still Victoria Schwab we’re talking about, and it is still the same story she’s telling. Even as I say that Our Dark Duet isn’t as good as Our Savage Song, I have to admit that it remains a powerful and emotionally charged series closer.
Part Two of the Overdramatic Review
Here’s your second warning that the following paragraphs will have lots of spoilers. And ranting. There’s been exactly zero editing below, don’t come here for coherent ideas. What’s coherence?
Oh, and this is me right now:
So. You didn’t quit reading when you were warned. Let’s go, then.
I’m so torn on dark!August. On one hand, the Leo ghost whispering in his head makes sense from a storytelling perspective. On the other, it feels like Kate’s ultimate purpose is reduced to redeeming/bringing him back to his humanity. She was set up to be so much more than this, had her own amazing heartwarming journey in Book One, and this time she doesn’t get as much to do. Her actions have little consequence other than to “save” August (which was what I loved This Savage Song for NOT doing) and her death is wasted. The whole thing reads like a fridging, albeit a super elaborate one. I like that she died. I don’t like how it happened. ILSA’s death on the other hand is one that serves the plot beautifully AS WELL AS living up to the complexity of the character.
Which leads me to the best thing I have to say in this rant, which is ILSA. ILSA YES. She finally gets her moment, and people, it does not disappoint. I loved Ilsa when she could sing and now that she has to rely on non-verbal communication we get to see even more of her. I could read an Ilsa spinoff for days.
None of this detracts from it being a well-written book. But really. Kate was built up to be such a great character. August was built up to develop leadership. Instead he regressed(? Maybe? It certainly reads like he did) and she accomplished essentially nothing. I still love Kate, and I still love who she’s become. But wow, did she get shafted hard. Am I salty? Yes I’m salty. Intellectually I know Our Dark Duet is quality writing, at most a tier below its predecessor. But I don’t like it. It feels like a totally different story. (Note from a few days later: Now that there’s more distance between me and the shock of the ending I’ve had time to gather my thoughts and you know what, I think it’s fine. I don’t love it, but I may return in the future with the knowledge that yes, it’s a Shakespearean tragedy, and appreciate it more.)
In the end, I can’t be hypocritical. I don’t like the choices. I don’t like that “my” characters have been “ruined.” But you know what, this was a good book. Kate and August are not OOC, because Schwab is the original creator of Verity and by definition what she writes is in character. I’ll just keep reminding myself of this.
Other reviews in this series: