Book Review: City of Savages, Lee Kelly (2015)

May 4th, 2015 11:06 am by Kelly Garbato

A Wild Ride through Post-Apocalyptic Manhattan

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review from the publisher. Trigger warning for rape and violence.)

Somehow this ruthless city is home to my sister. Where for me, it will never, ever be more than a cage.

If no one’s out there, then what’s keeping us in?

Sisters Skyler and Phoenix Miller were born and raised in Manhattan; from the wild forests of Central Park to the gleaming glass apartments in Battery Park, the island is the only home they’ve ever known. But their home is also their prison. Along with several hundred fellow survivors, Sky and Phee are prisoners of war: World War III, in which the Red Allies (China, North Korea, and Russia) simultaneously attacked New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and San Francisco, with the ultimate goal of conquering the United States. That was more than sixteen years ago, in March of 2016, and still the war rages on.

When Manhattan was first attacked, a lucky few survivors found safety in the subway tunnels – including their mother, Sarah. But as the months dragged on and supplies dwindled, many of the refugees were forced to the surface, to beg the Red Allies for mercy. Though most of the men were shot on sight, the women and children were imprisoned in cages once meant for lions and tigers: the Central Park Zoo, now transformed into an internment camp.

Eventually a leader emerged in the form of Rolladin, who persuaded their captors to move them to the relative comfort of the Carlyle Hotel. As the war dragged on and the soldiers combed the wreckage of NYC for “holdouts” – tunnel feeders and raiders – the POW camp grew. Eventually, when the Red Allies withdrew to follow the war west, Rolladin and her “whorelords” – warlords recruited from the prison population – were left in charge, to manage this “oasis in the middle of a war zone.” While no doubt an improvement over enemy occupation, Rolladin is an unyielding and oftentimes cruel warden, seemingly drunk on power. And yet she has a strange and inexplicable affinity for the Miller family.

The story is told from the alternating perspectives of Sky and Phee: Sky, the older, more delicate and bookish sister, who dreams of worlds far away; and Phee, an impulsive, tough-as-nails scrapper who cannot imagine living anywhere else. When the Camp’s relative calm is disrupted by the arrival of four mysterious strangers, the sisters must work together to uncover the truth about the island’s past, present, and future – a truth that’s tangled up in their mother’s past, which she keeps so closely guarded. (Luckily, Sky discovers and steals her journal, so we’re blessed with Sarah’s voice as well!)

But that’s only the first half of the story. Their journey carries them all over the island; they’re pursued on the surface by Rolladin and her warlords, and hunted through the tunnels by cannibals gone mad with hunger and darkness; crushed under one dictator’s thumb, only to find themselves in the clutches of a creepy cult leader. Just when they – and we – think it can’t get any worse, it does. It’s a wild ride with a true Godzilla vs. Mothra ending. (As in SPN episode 4.10:

DEAN: I got to hand it to you, Sammy. Bringing them all together all at once — angels and demons. It was a damn good plan.

SAM: Yeah, well, when you got Godzilla and Mothra on your ass, best to get out of their way and let them fight.)

City of Savages has more of a YA feel than I expected (given the brutal title and description), but that’s not a bad thing. I loved the sibling rivalry between Sky and Phee, two very different young women who share an unbreakable bond despite their dissimilarities; as the oldest of four kids, I can definitely relate. Delicate, inquisitive, and classically beautiful, in the world Before, Sky might have been a model or a writer – whereas Phee, with her big mouth and bigger fists, was all but made for this new, savage world. The juxtaposition of these opposing traits – old vs. new, then vs. now – in siblings so close they’re practically two halves of a whole is intriguing; I can’t help but wonder where each girl might be had WWIII somehow been avoided.

But. Once Kelly adds Ryder to the equation, things get a little annoying. It’s not so much the sisters competing over a guy that bothers me – but when you’re prioritizing romance over escape from a psychopath who murders and rapes in the name of G-O-D, then yeah. That’s a little over the top ridiculous.

Though there doesn’t seem to be much racial diversity in City of Savages, there’s a marvelous plot line wherein the girls’ mom, Sarah, falls in love with her husband’s sister, Mary. The two were taking Sky to the zoo when the war broke out; subsequently, they were trapped underground for seven months, during which time Mary cared for this little family. While she never knew her father, Sky is outraged on his behalf upon reading about the affair in Sarah’s journal; Phee, on the other hand, adopts a more pragmatic approach – basically, it’s not cheating if you think he’s dead. This might be the only time I took Phee’s side in the whole book.

(To quote one of my status updates: Phee’s a bit of a shit, isn’t she? Older sister talking.)

Kelly’s world building is wonderful as well: from the farms in Central Park to the tiny wilderness that blossoms along the Hudson River to the use of the zoo as an internment camp/prison, she paints a world rich and vivid with detail. While I was able to correctly guess at some of the plot twists (Sarah + Mary; The Standard), others came as a complete shock (the exact nature of the relationship between Rolladin and the Millers; I thought that Phee might be Rolladin’s daughter, perhaps with Tom).

Some of the language rubbed me the wrong way, though. For example, the word “bully” pops up with weird frequency, usually to describe behavior that’s far beyond bullying: rape, torture, war crimes.

And the story wraps up with a page from Sarah’s journal, now in Sky and Phee’s possession licitly: “I will give them a chance at a real life in this city that’s been raped and left for dead.” Nope. No. No thank you. Just no.

A city is an insentient object – a collection of bricks and concrete and cable wires and trees – and as such cannot be “raped.” Its citizens can be raped, sure; and many of them were, including Sarah. (Many, but not all, which also disqualifies the use of “city” as shorthand for every person therein.) But let’s not minimize their experiences by misusing the term in such a way that promotes rape culture, okay?

Things that are rape: Rape.

Things that are not rape: War. Bombing. Internment. Cannibalism. Murder. Logging. Habitat loss. Pollution. Taxes. Losing in a video game. Getting an F on a test. Someone bogarting your weed. You get the idea.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: While Manhattan is invaded by Chinese, North Korean, and Russian forces, we rarely see the soldiers – save for the kindly Xu, who escorted Sarah and her toddlers back to Central Park in the early days of the occupation. There really doesn’t appear to be much racial diversity here. However, there’s a marvelous plot line wherein Sarah falls in love with her sister-in-law Mary during their seven-month stand-off in the subway tunnels in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. I won’t say more because spoilers, but their relationship plays a large role in events to come.

 

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