Book review: This Savage Song, Victoria Schwab

Victoria Schwab is one of the guests of honour at Sirens this year, and since I hadn’t read anything of hers before (sorry!), I started with This Savage Song, on the recommendation of a number of people. Overall, this book is pretty good, but perhaps not as great as I was hoping, which is always a disappointment. That said, it’s fun, you might enjoy reading it, and I am looking forward to reading more of Schwab’s books to get a sense of her range.

The story revolves around and is mostly set in V-City, a city divided in two by competing forces struggling for power. In many ways, it’s a very modern place, complete with all the amenities and things one expects to find, but in one very glaring respect, it’s a bit different. That respect is the monsters that roam the streets. The monsters are the creations of acts of violence, which spontaneously create creatures of varying degrees of evil and ability.

So I’m into this worldbuilding a whole lot. Then we add Kate Harker, the daughter of the man who controls one half of V-City. She’s a firebrand with serious daddy issues and she’s also very shrewd, cold, and calculating. August Flynn, on the other hand, is a monster, albeit a rare one, belonging to the class known as Sunai. The Sunai feed on human souls, and specifically the souls of those who have turned to darkness. He and his ‘siblings’ work for the man who controls the other half of the city, a man they think of almost like a father.

You might think this is going to turn into a Romeo and Juliet tale when the two meet, which of course they do, because August is sent to spy on Kate, which is when they discover a complex, gross, and layered conspiracy that could destroy the city. They have to team up to put a stop to it, and romance isn’t on either of their minds, which really endears this book to me, because I love friendship novels, including frenemy novels, and that’s really what this is about, at heart.

I also note that Kate is hard of hearing, with hearing damage in one ear from an accident, and Schwab does a good job of integrating that into the story. She doesn’t let us forget it, and it becomes both an asset and a problem at various points, but Kate definitely isn’t consumed by her hearing loss and it’s not the biggest thing about her. She’s a great example of a disabled character who happens to be disabled while also depicting the mechanics of what it is like to live with a given impairment without being fetishistic. It’s not ‘oh Kate is hard of hearing’ on page two and then forgotten.

So far so good, yes? Interesting worldbuilding, plot that doesn’t revolve around romance, some good disability rep, it’s pretty fast paced and draws you along quickly (I read it in an afternoon), it has some lovely vivid, descriptive scenery that paints a glorious picture of the world around them. All of these things are good things, and the book is worth reading for them alone.

That said, though, I had some issues with This Savage Song, starting with the slightly formulaic characters. Look. It is hard to come up with an original character and inevitably stereotypes are going to seep into any character, sometimes because they reflect reality. There are absolutely people like Kate and August in the world, and Schwab did a good job with trying to add some depth to them.

At the same time, though, Kate often felt like a pouty spoiled brat with daddy problems and a Dark Past, and it made her feel predictable, for me as a reader. I kept wanting her to surprise me with something and she never really did, so it was hard for her to break out of that mold. August, on the other hand, was a classic brooding stereotyped monster searching for his soul, and at times it felt like he was pretty unimaginative, as a character.

I also felt like the plot dragged at times, and at others got so snarled up that I couldn’t figure out what was happening. About halfway through, I actually had to look the book up again to confirm that it was the first in the series, because I felt so lost and confused by some of the things that were going on that I wondered if maybe I missed something. The pacing got erratic at times, although it was sometimes difficult to pin down where, exactly, it was going wrong. (Look, pacing is hard and is one of my biggest challenges as a writer so I am always reading things with a close eye for pacing.)

These are things that I may feel differently about with a reread — for example, now that I understand a lot of worldbuilding and plot elements, maybe I can concentrate more on the characters when I read This Savage Song again, and I’ll see more of their layers. And reading has been much more difficult over these last few months, which probably didn’t help.

I don’t want these things to turn you off from reading it — the book has received substantial critical acclaim and I may be a minority. This is the amazing and cool thing about books: We all get such different things out of them!

Image: Fake Plastic Alice, Flickr