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This Savage Song by Victoria SchwabThree and a half stars
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I suppose the reason Victoria Schwab can bounce between adult and young adult fantasy with little effort and equally popular results is because there’s fundamentally little difference in the work she does for either category. The main distinction appears to be whether or not her protagonists have reached legal drinking age.

In terms of the stories Schwab tells, her Shades of Magic trilogy (adult) and Monsters of Verity (YA) share a lot of creative DNA. There is a cleverly imagined world marked by clear territorial demarcations, such as the parallel Londons of Shades of Magic and the battleground of V-City in This Savage Song, which is split right down the middle by a literal boundary separating lawful evil from what feels very much like neutral good. There are heroes from disparate backgrounds who must endure violence and strife to achieve their ends. And finally there is, most thankfully, a refusal to fall into traditional romance tropes that today seem obligatory between male/female hero teamups in YA fantasy. Schwab’s books are fast-paced, offering plots constructed for the most part with surgical precision, delivering a pure escapist, popcorn reading experience rather than timeless epic fantasy you’d be likely to revisit for years to come.

This is all fine. Sometimes you just wanna say, “Fuck art, let’s dance.” And like the violin music played by August, the young monster who is one of this novel’s heroes, This Savage Song works its magic on you to even better effect than the Shades of Magic series. The book is an urban fantasy, set in a future version of our own world, many years after a sketchily explained phenomenon (called the Phenomenon) has forced a redrawing of national boundaries and created a world in which acts of violence manifest real, physical monsters.

The war-torn Verity City is divided into north and south halves. In the north, it’s controlled by crime boss Callum Harker, who runs the place as a protection racket with a gang of henchmen made up of the ferocious Malchai. Pay handsomely for one of Harker’s special pendants, and you can live safely in affluent urban comfort. In the south, the altruistic Henry Flynn and his paramilitary task force haven’t done much to clear out the rubble, but they do engage the services of the city’s only three Sunai, a breed of human-appearing monsters who feed only upon the souls of evildoers, drawing the shadowy corruption out of their bodies with music.

August is one of these Sunai, adopted as a son by Flynn, and as the book opens he’s itching for more action. So Flynn assigns him to sneak into the north city and go undercover as a student at Colton Academy, a private school where Harker’s daughter Kate has just started attending classes. The idea is to spy on Kate in the hopes of learning if there’s any truth to suspicions that there is a plot afoot to violate the fragile truce between north and south. It seems Kate’s a little rebel who has a habit of acting out in ways that include arson, and, in accordance with her desire to prove to her father she’s worthy of the feared family name, she has manipulated her way back to where she can be close to him.

So we have our sides in the conflict neatly lined up. At this point the novel could jumped with both feet right into a pool of cliché teen fantasy stuff and nonsense. But impressively, Schwab avoids more of these traps than you might expect. It is obvious that Kate will begin to suspect something about August’s identity, but the way in which Schwab allows these plot complications to unfold is believable and creates moments of real suspense, which is quite a feat to pull off in a story where we readers already know a great many things the heroes do not. It turns out that open warfare on the streets of V-City is a looming threat. But the conspirators aren’t necessarily who you might suspect. And when Kate and August inevitably have to team up to fight the threat together, their growing yet cautious bond feels genuine, rather than motivated by the requirements of YA formula, and the plot ramps up effective tension, in a way that A Darker Shade of Magic never quite felt like it pulled off.

Simply put, Kate and August are far more sympathetic and appealing than Kell and Lila from Shade. And Schwab’s urban setting, while less epic in its imaginative scope than all those Londons, has a convincing texture — you might as well just call it “gritty realism” — in the way it mixes the familiar, like subways and smartphones, with the magical. The scenes at Colton Academy also have a way of invoking nostalgic memories of 90s teen fantasies, in particular the early seasons of Buffy, without any overt callbacks to Joss Whedon’s particular creative trademarks or humorous sensibilities. If anything, it feels like what we might have gotten if Buffy had been a John Carpenter movie.

And it’s no surprise this series was picked up very quickly by Hollywood, because Schwab has a screenwriter’s efficiency in how she raises the stakes in the story’s final act and builds everything to an action-packed climax, even if it does mean that some scenes towards the end spin out in a more predictable manner than we might have found ideal.

Exciting and propulsive in its best moments, This Savage Song, I’m pleased to say, marks a career-best for Vicky Schwab as her star continues to rise. What we take away from the tale is a reminder that each of us has a little monster deep inside, but it’s all up to us in this life just how savage we choose to be.

Followed by Our Dark Duet.