Twelve years ago, the Phenomenon occurred. A partial apocalypse of sorts, something so terrible that it changed the world irreparably (as apocalypses do) but it did so by creating three new sorts of creatures which now live among humans. Each of these monsters was created by an act of violence and hate, “Crime. That was the cause. Corsai, Malchai, Sunai — they were the effect.” In Victoria Schwab’s latest Young Adult speculative thriller This Savage Song, Verity City, a place always on the edge of something terrible, is a place where humans must watch their every step, always wary of the Corsai who feed on flesh, the Malchai who feed on blood and the Sunai, the most dangerous and rare of all, who feed on souls.
This Savage Song is a book that lays bare its heart from the very start, making it clear that the vicious circle of violence begetting violence is, to a great extent, inescapable. The monsters in the book are created by human acts of violence: “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.”
Peace is a relative term in Verity City where lines have been drawn quite literally to divide up territories. The Seam splits the city, one part under control of Callum Harker and his company of organised criminals, whom the human population pays for protection until nightly curfew, thus being granted relative safety during the day. The other half of the city is patrolled by Henry Flynn and his motley crew of human soldiers and a few rumoured Sunai. However, tensions between the two territories are at a high and everyone is certain that the agreement reached years ago will not hold for much longer, the wall dividing the city in half being “the result of six years of territory war, each act of violence, each human death ushering more Corsai and Malchai into the world, all because the Flynns had the city, and Harker wanted it”.
The supernatural consequences of human beings’ baser instincts are the theme of This Savage Song
August is one of the Flynn Sunai along with his sister and elder brother. He has no idea where he came from — he blinked into existence as a teenage boy after an incidence of extreme violence, as did his ‘siblings’. Each of the Sunai have an instrument — August a violin, his brother a guitar and their sister her voice — with which they can play a song that allows them to take and feed on a human soul. Without this, they cannot survive, though August struggles against his true nature constantly, imagining himself to be a monster, going weeks without feeding, each night that passes without a kill leaving a tattoo-like mark on his skin. His brother feels otherwise, explaining their nature as necessary to keeping the world at an even keel: “Do not lump us in with those base creatures. We are not Corsai, swarming like insects. We are not Malchai, feeding like beasts. Sunai are balance.”
Starving himself, however, may well result in a large-scale fallout for August, which naturally makes him a threat to those around him. He may not want to be the way he is, but choosing not to be isn’t safe either. The violence, however, never ends; such is the nature of the beast. “[T]he Sunai focused on hunting sinners in order to stem the flow of violence, and the slaying of the monsters fell to the humans, and the humans, invariably, fell to them. It was a cycle of whimpers and bangs, gruesome beginnings and bloody ends.”
We meet Harker’s daughter Kate as she is burning down the chapel of the sixth school she’s been sent to. She wants nothing more than to prove to her cold, detached father that she is worthy of his attention and his name. She wants to be someone who incites fear the way her father does, but mostly she wants her father to want her around him. Kate’s motives are clear, if based on an emotional need for parental validation.
You’d think August and Kate were destined to be star-crossed lovers, caught in an ancient family feud that keeps them apart, but This Savage Song isn’t that book. August and Kate have different reasons for getting to know each other while trying to balance the power struggles within their families. They’re also both young adults, still trying to work out who they are and what they’re willing to give up to get what they want. They may be heirs apparent to their respective halves of V-City, but their paths aren’t clear or safe at all. There are others involved who want to take control, those who will break truces and create new, fraught bonds in order to shift the centre of power towards themselves. In This Savage Song, the desire for power is the greatest motive of all.
Violence breeds violence. Violence makes monsters of us all. And if it doesn’t of those who have committed it, then rest assured, there has been a monster created somewhere as a result of the action.
August is a monster who wants to be a real boy. Kate is a real girl who wants to be monstrous. At first, neither can understand why the other wants what they do. “Why do you even want to be human? We’re fragile. We die,” says Kate, only to be told by August, “You also live. You don’t spend every day wondering why you exist but don’t feel real, why you look human but can’t be. You don’t do everything you can to be a good person only to have it constantly thrown in your face that you’re not a person at all.”
What makes us human? What makes a person a person and not a monster to be treated differently, badly, inhumanely? If how we look isn’t enough, then is how we feel, how we bleed, enough? That is the question This Savage Song asks. Violence breeds violence. Violence makes monsters of us all. And if it doesn’t of those who have committed it, then rest assured, there has been a monster created somewhere as a result of the action. Schwab is very clear in her stance on socio-politics; sharp and poignant. This Savage Song is thrilling just as much as it is sad, though strong and entirely needed at this incredibly xenophobic time in the world. There are monsters among us, Schwab seems to be saying, and though it may sometimes be hard to tell who they are, it’s very clear what’s causing them to be what they are: we are.
This Savage Song features some excellent world-building, sensitively created characters and a solid plot. Schwab’s narrative is deftly paced and incredibly readable given the valid, complicated politics at its heart. There is no preaching here, just a smart, well-told story with a strongly grounded point about monsters — what makes them monstrous, what makes us human and who gets to decide which is which.
The reviewer is a book critic and editor of The Apex Book of World SF 4. She also hosts the interview podcast Midnight in Karachi at Tor.com.
This Savage Song
By Victoria Schwab
Greenwillow Books, US
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 13th, 2016