The abyss gazes back: "This Savage Song" by Victoria Schwab

Book: This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab

Release date: July 5, 2016

Pages: 427

Publisher: Greenwillow Books

Genre/category: Urban Fantasy, Young Adult

Rating: ★★★★

Kate Harker wants to be as ruthless as her father. After five years and six boarding schools, she’s finally going home to prove that she can be.

August Flynn wants to be human. But he isn’t. He’s a monster, one that can steal souls with a song. He’s one of the three most powerful monsters in a city overrun with them. His own father’s secret weapon.

Their city is divided.

Their city is crumbling.

Kate and August are the only two who see both sides, the only two who could do something.

But how do you decide to be a hero or a villain when it’s hard to tell which is which?

This was a delightful surprise.

I saw all the cool kids on Booktube reading this and had no intention of picking it up. What can I say — sometimes, I just like to be contrarian. But, I ordered the July 2016 Uppercase Box, and this turned out to be the selection. (Fun fact: I went to college with Lisa, the founder of the Uppercase service, and she was just a lovely human being, so good on you, Lisa. Doing big things!)

So I went into this pretty neutral, with zero expectations, and my gosh, this was awesome. 

Schwab described this as "Sin City PLUS Romeo and Juliet MINUS romance PLUS monsters," which is an intriguing pitch for me despite the lack of romance (more on that later).  It's got the grit and corruption of Sin City and the warring families and unlikely partnership of Romeo and Juliet.

Society has been altered by a Phenomenon in which acts of violence give life to monsters. Not the figurative kind, but the ones that go bump in the night. Like the Chupacabra. Don't you tell me the Chupacabra was an urban legend — I was living in the Dominican Republic at the height of the Chupacabra's reign of terror, and I cowered for many nights in my mosquito net-guarded bed.

The city is divided into two. One half is controlled by Callum Harker, who charges citizens for protection from the flesh-eating, blood-sucking monsters. The other half is under the protection of Henry Flynn and his task force. Kate, Harker's estranged daughter, wants nothing more than her father's approval, and she'll be as brutal and heartless as she needs to be to get it. August, Flynn's adopted son, is a gentle soul with an intense conflict over his identity. He has to take souls of evildoers to survive, or else risk harming innocents by losing control.

"Hunger plucked at his muscles and sang through his bones, and it felt like something was trying to claw its way out."

I thought the world-building was intriguing but a bit confusing. I saw a review saying a map of Verity would have been helpful, and I thought the same thing while reading. And that's coming from someone who can't read a map IRL and who always thinks maps in books are silly. I was curious just how Callum Harker built his empire and exerted any control over the monsters. I kind of hope that the sequel will explore the systems in place in this dystopian society more.

My favorite aspect of this book was Kate and August together. Kate's vulnerable, broken-little-girl interior was painfully obvious. It was clear from the get-go she was overcompensating in her attempts to be ruthless and rebellious. But her cleverness and determination were genuine, and there's a lot to be said for a character who knows what she wants, even if what she wants is morally in question. August was vulnerable in a different way. He was inquisitive and desperate to find a sense of purpose. It's not that Kate and August balance each other out. It's more like they both have had to find a way to become comfortable with darkness. Kate has dealt with trauma, and August was born of trauma. Kate seeks her place in an unforgiving world, and August doesn't really have a choice because of what he is. That attempt to control or use darkness comes out in a lot of their interactions. They have this easy banter with each other, this dark humor that shows they have similar ways of coping with the world, even if the ways they act out differ.

And throughout the course of the book, they come to trust and depend on each other, and understand each other in this almost tender way. Which is why it hurts my heart that this isn't a romance. I know people are really excited that Kate and August weren't paired up romantically, that there are zero love interests in this. BUT. So many YA romances have couples that are just totally insta-lovey, or who you just don't "get," and Kate and August actually have all the building blocks for a compelling romance. Alas, that is not the story Schwab is telling. It's a damn good one all the same.