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FICTION: THE MONSTERS WITHIN US

October 08, 2017

Victoria Schwab’s Monsters of Verity duology culminates with Our Dark Duet that picks up a few months after where This Savage Song (reviewed in Books & Authors earlier) left off. The narrative stays with the protagonists from the earlier novel, Kate and August, alternating perspectives between the two lead characters in the same style as that employed in This Savage Song.

Our Dark Duet continues Kate and August’s stories in a world that hasn’t changed at its core — the cities continue to be rife with violence, supernatural terrors lurk in the dark, and each being that lives just to take human lives exists only because human lives were taken. The central premise Schwab uses to build this world remains as intriguing, as exciting and as frightening a second time around: what if, for every act of human violence, a physical, literal monster was born, one that feeds either on flesh or blood, or worst of all, on human souls.

But monsters have their uses too, and while the Verity City we return to is partly under the control of Sloan — a Malchai (monsters created by an act of murder, and who feed on blood) desperate to have Kate back in what used to be her home and equally desperate to take her life — there are also monsters working to somehow allow people to live as safely as possible in a world begot by violence. Who decides what makes a monster and who decides who the true monsters are? In some cases, it is up to August, who is forced to take the souls of those new arrivals who have committed murders, allowing only the innocent to enter the protected parts of Verity. It is a heavy burden for a young man, but then August is, after all, a Sunai — born to keep a balance, existing solely to “destroy monsters and eliminate the sinner responsible for them”, as he is told again and again by the newest of his kind. But August has always wanted to be a real boy, and taking the souls of even sinners has changed him irrevocably.

A worthy sequel to a YA novel is heavier and darker than the first

We find that Kate has left Verity for Prosperity, where she has become a monster hunter and a very good one at that. Of course, her alternate life is short-lived as she’s drawn back to Verity by a new sort of monster, one that does not kill directly, but appears to incite violence in those around it. This leads to complete havoc and mass killings which, of course, then result in more monsters of the sort Verity is already overpopulated with. It seems that the good guys in Verity City are fighting a losing battle when Kate returns, adamant to kill the biggest and baddest of them all and hopefully save August from himself as well. Of course, it’s never quite as simple as getting what you want, because alongside the hordes of monsters that Sloan controls, there is also Alice, the creature that came into being from a terrible act of violence Kate committed in This Savage Song. Alice is Kate’s evil twin as it were; her powerful, bloodthirsty and unstoppable evil twin. There are more new entrants in the familiar world of Verity City, formidable adversaries that make Our Dark Duet a worthy sequel, from a very skilled writer, that picks up pace fast to lead to a spectacular, devastating final act.

Kate and August remain the two steadily beating hearts of the narrative, with each of them having grown and evolved. They’re both still incredibly flawed, complicated young adults though, each trying very hard to find their way in the world, unable to entirely accept the paths that have been laid out for them. But the paths they are attempting to forge aren’t comfortable ones, either. Neither of these characters is quite a hero, nor quite the antihero. They oscillate between what can be traditionally seen as good or evil, which makes complete sense in a narrative that examines what it means to be human, and what it means to be monstrous. Our Dark Duet is a thriller as much as This Savage Song was, but this is a heavier, darker book than the first, with each protagonist carrying a bigger burden and not just of the albatross that they are to each other. Is there relief to be found in a world where the lines between humanity and monstrosity can be so amorphous? Perhaps, though not without great pain and loss.

She remembered, distantly, a swell of anger, a longing to hurt something, someone. But it was like a dream, quickly fading. The monster was gone, and Kate lurched to her feet, the world rocking violently. She caught herself against the wall. One step at a time, she made her way back toward the flashing lights, stopping at the mouth of the alley as an ambulance sped away. — Excerpt from the book

The reviewer is a book critic and editor of the Apex Book of World SF 4 and The Djinn Falls in Love & Other Stories. She also hosts the interview podcast Midnight in Karachi at Tor.com

Our Dark Duet
By Victoria Schwab
Greenwillow, US
ISBN: 978-0062380883
528pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 8th, 2017