This post-apocalytic duology takes place in a re-constituted America after a period of national unrest, a strained economy, and political anarchy. Twelve years before the start of the story, a fundamental change in nature caused violence to start taking actual shape. Specifically, monsters were created out of all the murders being committed. At first, there were only three types:
Corsai came from violent, but nonlethal acts, and they fed on flesh and bone
Malchai came from murders, and fed on blood
Sunai came from mass killings, and fed on life-forces of sinners, the auras of their souls.
As far as anyone knows, there are only three Sunai in existence, and they live with Henry Flynn, who is the head of the southern portion of V-City, capital of Verity. He is trying, along with his Sunai, to keep at bay the bad people and the monsters they create.
The North is run by Callum Harker, an autocrat who extracts money from his people in return for protection. He also employs torture to instill fear and obedience, with the help of his favorite Malchai, Sloan. His 17-year-old daughter Kate knew her father was a bad man, but thought he was what the city needed:
“Good and bad were weak words. Monsters didn’t care about intentions or ideals. The facts were simple. The South was chaos. The North was order. It was an order bought and paid for with blood and fear, but order all the same.”
Even though Kate was contemptuous of Flynn for being a quixotic idealist, she comes to admire his “son,” the Sunai August, who is 16. (He was created four years earlier after a mass shooting at a middle school.)
Kate and August improbably become friends when they end up at the same high school. Kate is drawn to August because he wasn’t fake like the other students, and because he clearly didn’t belong in a way she couldn’t identify; all she knew was that she didn’t belong either.
Ironically, Kate wants to be more like a monster so her father will accept her, and August wants to be more human like his father, because he has a moral code. He spends most of his time afraid: “Afraid of what he was, afraid of what he wasn’t, afraid of unraveling, becoming something, else, becoming nothing.”
And in fact, the Sunai can become something fearsome. Sunai “go dark” if they stop feeding on souls: “They lose the ability to tell the difference between good and bad, monster and human. They just kill. They kill everyone.” It happened to August twice before Kate met him. Now he has stopped eating because he doesn’t want to feel like a monster. But he also is afraid that eventually he will lose control from hunger and go dark.
Kate understands when he confesses to her: “He was just someone who wanted to be something else, something he wasn’t. Kate understood the feeling.”
They grow close, and August and Kate run off to the Waste, the dangerous no-man’s land outside of the city limits. They go to Kate’s old house, but they are tracked down. Kate kills someone who tries to break in, and even though she did it in self defense, she now has the telltale red-colored life-force of a sinner.
August’s “sister,” the Sunai Ilsa, helps them escape. The two are captured by Sloan, who brags that he killed Ilsa. The third Sunai, Leo, tries to kill Sloan, and August, Kate, and Leo get away.
But then August, weak and starving, goes dark, and all of their lives change.
Evaluation: Schwab is a skillful weaver of tales, and knows how to incorporate magic into them without the magic seeming fatuous. In the case of both Kate and of August, you can see how their backgrounds helped define them, for good or for ill. The identity struggles of both Kate and August are so unusual, and so heartbreaking. At one point, sitting on the roof of the compound, they are looking up at the stars:
“‘I read somewhere,’ said Kate, “‘that people are made of stardust.’
He dragged his eyes from the sky. ‘Really?’
‘Maybe that’s what you’re made of. Just like us.'”
I look forward to the sequel.
Published by Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2016