Chapter 16
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Of Monsters and Men

Victoria Schwab probes what it means to be human in her new YA novel, This Savage Song

Victoria Schwab’s latest young-adult dystopian novel, This Savage Song opens in a world of contrasts as sharp as a yin-yang symbol—order versus chaos, people versus monsters.

After an event referred to as The Phenomenon, which created three breeds of monsters, the United States has collapsed into ten territories. One of these is Verity, which encompasses the old states of Iowa, Missouri, and Kentucky. V-City, the capital, is divided into two regions: North City, where there is order, and South City, where there is chaos. But both sides of the city have made unsavory choices.

In North City, order is preserved by a mob boss, Callum Harker, who demands payment for protection enforced by his own supposedly tame monsters. On the other side of the Seam that separates the two halves of V-City, South City is loosely governed by Henry Flynn, a resistance leader. His fighters patrol the streets and kill monsters. The sound of constant gunfire pervades South City.

Initially the teenage protagonists of This Savage Song seem as starkly contrasted as the two halves of V-City: angst-ridden August Flynn, one of the rare Sunai (“monsters” who come into being after a mass murder), and ruthless Kate Harker, daughter of the North City despot. Kate burns down a chapel at her boarding school, determined to be expelled for the sixth time in five years so she can return to V-City and rule alongside her father.

August, who was adopted by Henry Flynn after his strange “birth” in a mass school shooting, is pressured to serve the resistance by assuming a false human identity and enrolling in a prep school in North City. But first he must feed on a soul that reeks of sin: on his violin, he must play a song that draws that sinful soul out and into his own body, in an eerie rite of redemption and resurrection: “August stood very still as the man’s energy rolled through him. It didn’t feel electric, didn’t leave him high with power. If anything, it simply made him feel … real. The anger and the sickness and the strain were gone, washed away, and August simply felt … whole.”

For August, it’s a cruel irony—to feel human only while behaving monstrously. “Which made him wonder,” Schwab writes, “if that brief glimpse of humanity was really just an illusion, an echo of the life he’d taken. An imposter sensation.”

In this world where violence and sin literally breed monsters, both human and inhuman, Kate and August meet at school, and their strangeness draws them to each other despite themselves. But events send on them on a run for their lives, and they must prove whether at core they are good or evil. “There are no wasted words here, and the end result is a darkly precise narrative that feels like a shiver down the spine,” writes Booklist in a starred review.” [T]his taut creation about the nature of humanity lingers long after its disquieting finale.”

This Savage Song is the first of two novels in a new series; the conclusion scheduled for release in 2017. Schwab, who lives in Nashville, is the author of several other young-adult novels, including The Archived, The Unbound and The Near Witch. Writing as V.E. Schwab, she is also the author of dark fantasy for adults including Vicious and the first two books in a trilogy: A Darker Shade of Magic, and A Gathering of Shadows. The third book in that series is also due in 2017, and a sequel to Vicious is scheduled for 2018.