I reach down into the part of me that I never knew existed, not until these past few weeks, anyway. To my layer of malnourished courage, to my soft undercurrent of determination. I close my eyes and picture Phee beside me.
I channel her.
In 2017, New York City is invaded.
Bombed and assaulted, the once great and proud city falls to the Red Allies—the first casualty in a war that will bring civilization to the brink of disaster. In the almost two decades following that initial attack, Manhattan transforms from war zone, to occupied territory, to POW camp. Under the watch of brutal female warden (and fellow prisoner), Rolladin, life continues. Survival continues. Rolladin’s rule is absolute and her justice is hard, but the prisoners of Manhattan survive hard winter after hard winter under her iron grip.
For sisters Skyler and Phoenix Miller, the city is two different worlds: for Sky, it’s a true prison, devoid of meaning, answers, or hope; for Phee, it’s home and full of violent, exciting possibility.
On Phee’s 16th birthday—the eve of the annual winter census—Sky, Phee, and their mother venture into the skeletal remains of the Lower East Side for the first time to visit their family home before the war. Here, the sisters discover their mother’s journal and the truth behind the war, Rolladin, and their survival. Here, they discover that they are not alone in their city prison—that the world beyond is not at all what they thought it would be, that secrets and lies stain every corner of their lives.
The cost of truth—the very price of survival—threatens to tear Sky and Phee apart, and the two sisters, already so different from each other, will be tested.
City of Savages marks two debuts: it’s the debut novel from author Lee Kelly, as well as the debut title from Saga Press (the much-buzzed about speculative fiction imprint from Simon & Schuster, under Joe Monti’s editorial eye). And, well...it’s a strange choice for Saga Press’ launch title. City of Savages by all appearances seems to be an adult thriller—at least, that’s my own first impression (and a consensus from an informal poll of fellow readers). A full price adult hardcover ($25.99), with jacket art featuring a bleak, tree-and-skyline-photo silhouette aesthetic, City of Savages screams a crossover SFF-thriller.
It certainly doesn’t seem to be a YA post-apocalyptic dystopian novel.
Imagine my surprise, then, upon opening this book and discovering that its protagonists are 16 and 17 years old; that the narrative alternates each chapter between these two first-person viewpoints; that despite all appearances, this is very much a YA speculative-fiction dystopia more along the lines of Marie Lu’s Legend, rather than Colson Whitehead’s Zone One.
None of this is bad—especially not in my opinion, as I love YA, and dystopias, and science-fictional mishmashes of both subgenres. But it’s important to point out (and probably should be a larger discussion about book packaging and marketing) because City of Savages might be missing some key audience members—and perhaps confusing others. I’m not sure if marketing the novel as an adult SF dystopia/thriller instead of YA was an intentional move for Saga Press—I’m curious to see how it all shakes out. But I digress.
Expectation aside, and regardless of how a book is categorized and marketed, it’s the content of the novel that matters to the reader. Happily, the content behind City of Savages is solid: a post-apocalyptic POW camp in the middle of Manhattan is a haunting image, and Kelly creates a perfect kind of claustrophobic environment of secrets, lies, and violence. The story might not be very unique—it’s kind of a Red Dawn meets Escape from New York meets Ally Condie—but Kelly ratchets up the action and stakes, and, most importantly, does not pull any punches with the consequences certain characters face for their actions. (Read: people really die.) City of Savages doesn’t ever manage to surprise: the twists (if you can call them that) are incredibly obvious from the discovery of Sarah Miller’s journal. Then again, this isn’t really a book about the gratuitous shock of discovery (although it tries to be that kind of book in its weaker moments—looking at you, typical subway cannibals tribe + obsessed cultists at the end of the world + ALL THE LIES FOR YOUR OWN GOOD).
Rather, City of Savages is a story about how characters react to these discoveries. How does immense stress weigh on the already frayed relationship between two sisters? Between two unexpected lovers? The secrets that Sky and Phee keep from each other, that Sarah keeps from her daughters, they all involve a careful balance of choice and consequence. This is where City of Savages truly shines.
Told in alternating points of view, these sisters are not only different in personality and their choices but in their narrative voices as well. Phee is courageous, short-tempered, and confident; meanwhile Skyler is more reserved and intellectual, questioning and reflecting on the world around her. Both sisters grapple with their own sense of inadequacy and frustration: Sky, for example, feels like she is always in Phee’s shadow and the black sheep of the city; Phee feels like Sky does nothing but question and mistrust her motives, always insinuating that she alone is smart and right. But underneath the insecurity and the tension, there is true love between these two characters—it is this love that is the integral heart of City of Savages. It’s this examination of family that makes the book memorable, rather than just another YA dystopian action-filled romp.
Yes, there are some stumbles—including a frustrating and insidious love triangle between a gorgeous (of course) British boy and the two sisters (ugh)—but at the end of the day, I was moved by City of Savages. Recommended, and I hope to read more from Lee Kelly soon.
In Book Smugglerish: 6.5 scrawled secrets out of 10.