Victoria Schwab’s Monsters of Verity duology is one that walks two tracks: it follows some unwritten rules of genre writing while carving out a completely new niche in the specific subgenre of Fantasy. In today’s post, I’m going to attempt to extrapolate what, exactly, might make a book feel more of a genre book rather than a literary one (I’ll explain the difference in a moment), and how a novel that has such an unusual amalgamation of setting elements might still feel like a genre book.
Before I get too far into this post, let me issue my standard warning: spoilers abound. We’re going to be delving into setting elements in both books, and our discussion of the genre/literary differences will probably delve into some plot points as well. If you want spoiler-free discussions of the books, there is already a This Savage Song review and an Our Dark Duet review.
So. What do I mean by genre versus literary? Well, in normal usage, genre fiction would typically refer to books that follow their genre’s formula. They’re accessible–more simplistic prose, less complex world-building and magic systems. Think easy summer reads. Literary fiction is a little more complex. It steps off the beaten path, tries new things. Often, it’s darker, with a narrative style that’s perhaps a little more formal and a setting that’s a lot more fleshed out. But, typically, the biggest difference between genre and literary fiction is that literary fiction wants to immerse you in the unexpected while the genre wants to comfort you with the familiar.
In a series about a pseudo-America split into four cities, at least one of which as a monster problem–but with monsters you’ve likely never thought of before–what about it could possibly make it feel like genre novels? To begin, let’s take a bit of a closer look at some of the setting elements.
A Different Kind of World
Verity is a city split in two, run by two very different people who have two very different solutions to the monster problem that suddenly appeared six years ago. On the north side, Callum Harker has found a way to get control over the monsters, and one must buy protection from him. On the south side, Henry Flynn has formed a small army to fight monsters as they crop up, with the assistance of the three Sunai–the most human of the monster types. Unfortunately, when any type of violence creates more monsters, it’s a never-ending battle.
A Tale of
Two … Four…Two Cities: The Dystopian Setting
A common trope in the dystopian subgenre is a minimally-developed present-day setting, with enough history to establish current events without actually explaining them. Thus is Monsters of Verity presented. In some alt-history that began just after the Vietnam War (don’t quote me on that, but I am pretty sure I remember this being mentioned), America itself become something different than it is today. What used to be a massive country is now only a small region split into four territories: Verity, Prosperity, Fortune, Temperance.
The technology seemed to progress in much the same fashion it did in our own reality. There are cars, tablets, and guns just like what you would find now. That may very well be because the monsters didn’t show up until a few years prior to the start of the novel. What served as the catalyst remains a mystery, but what was left in its wake was a city divided in two, where in the north, one must buy one’s safety from Callum Harker, who has managed to get control over his monster population with the help of a monster of his own. In the south, Henry Flynn created the Flynn Task Force to train volunteers in an army-like fashion to fight the monsters and keep everyone safe.
The sudden appearances of monsters put Verity under quarantine. People cannot leave or enter the territory for fear that the monster problem will spread to the others. In Our Dark Duet, Kate gets to learn about how the compound feeds itself and keeps the lights on–the latter is from solar generators–which added some concrete details to help solidify an otherwise vague outline of a setting. But, beyond a short stint with Kate in Prosperity (where we see an even more modern setting), we know almost nothing about the other three territories.
What Monsters of Verity manages to do is establish concrete rules about everything that is happening in Verity right now. It certainly left a lot of questions unanswered–what was the catalyst? Why these three types of monsters? Why don’t the other cities have their own monsters? Will there always be monsters in Verity?–but there was enough world-building to establish characters and plot.
Monsters of a Literal Kind: A Taste of Fantasy
In an otherwise dystopian setting, the monsters of Verity provide a quasi-paranormal setting. There is no magic system, no magic save what the monsters can do. There’s no sweeping setting. The only thing that pulls away from the dystopian genre is the fact “monster” doesn’t just mean “evil dictator person.” There are monsters in both senses of the word.
In Verity, they are born from three different types of violence. The most numerous kind are the Corsai, shadow-wraith entities with a hive-mind that cannot operate in sunlight. A Corsai is created when someone commits a non-lethal act of violence. The extent of that violence remains murky–muggings seem to be the default assumption, but it’s unclear if picking fights with someone (which happens several times with no mention of Corsai) also creates the creatures. The second kind of monsters are the Malchai, springing from murder. They are smart, far smarter than Corsai, but their appearances are all wrong. Their bones are dark and their skin is semi-translucent. Lastly, there’s the Sunai, and in the course of the series, there are only ever four. These are created by mass devastation (like bombings or mass shootings). They can pass as human, but they feed on the souls of humans guilty of crimes. They reap souls with music, and if they don’t feed, they can go “dark” and a lot of innocent people can get hurt as well.
Verity’s monsters are theoretically supposed to serve as humanity’s comeuppance, the justice for the crimes they commit. The Sunai and Malchai are not picky on the lives they take, hence the task force in the south and Callum Harker’s protective pendants in the north. The pendants are made of iron, poisonous to all monsters, although in varying degrees–Malchai cannot touch it without getting severely burned; Sunai can but it makes them feel ill. Sunai can only feast on the souls of the guilty, but some of them have a conscience and recognize the guilt of a soul does not take circumstance into consideration: killing in self-defense will still create a Malchai, and will still present a “guilty soul” to a Sunai.
Beyond Verity, the question of monsters becomes a little more flimsy. Kate visits Prosperity for a short while in Our Dark Duet, and while there, she hunts monsters. They are not the same kind as Verity’s, and they live in the shadows, enough so that Prosperity believes there are no monsters. But a dark underbelly festers beneath the uppity, arrogant facade of Prosperity. It is here that the Chaos Eater first presents itself, causing friends to turn on friends and entire buildings to fight animalistically to the death.
Whether Temperance and Fortune suffer from any sort of monster problem at all is never discussed.
Toeing the Line: Layers of World-Building
Both fantasy and dystopian sci-fi require a certain level of world-building to make sense, to help establish stakes within which the plot and characters can interact with. Generally speaking, the more an author knows about their world, the more immersive that world tends to be for its readers. Yet these lighter genre reads tend to feature more simplistic worlds. We’ll discuss below the correlation between world immersion and the reading experience itself, but first I want to discuss the divide between too little and just enough world-building.
Overall, Schwab curated just enough information for her readers to understand and care about the plot and the characters. There are a few missed details or misleading pieces of information which, handled differently, would have made for a slightly more satisfying conclusion, but for the most part, I think Schwab manages to find the most important details for her readers to focus on.
Present-day details are obviously some of the most important to establish early on. A book about monsters should have clear rules about what the different monsters are, how they are made, and what they are capable of. The more powerful they are, the bigger their weaknesses ought to be. The Corsai are little more than shapeless shadows with an unending hunger, and they are they are repulsed by light. The Malchai are fast, cunning, and deadly, but they can be slowed by light and killed by iron. The Sunai are harder to kill the more souls they reap, but they also have a conscience. And, of course, the stark two-sidedness of Verity’s leadership presents an easy source of conflict, aided by Kate’s recognition that her father is an evil man while siding with him because she thinks the opposition’s way is too weak to work.
There are different layers of world-building, which, for the sake of brevity, I won’t get into here but will likely dedicate a following blog post to. What’s important to recognize for today’s post is that tactfully deciding which world-building elements are necessary and which just serve as extra flavor can mean an author can write a more simplistic setting without losing too much in the narrative quality as long as they are intentionally writing a genre novel. (In comparison to, say, Wings of Ebony, a novel that desired to be taken seriously and so whose short-comings were a little more obvious.)
Affect of World-Building on the Reading Experience
As noted above, there are several aspects that can determine whether a novel is of a genre or literary nature. The synopsis of This Savage Song suggests something of a more formulaic nature–implying that August and Kate are going to follow the enemies to friends (lovers?) trope and offering a relatively easy-to-predict (at least in broad strokes) plotline–but from a reader’s vantage point, the formulaic plot won’t really reveal itself until the end, where the predictions are either proven true or false. The prose is accessible, written in third person past-tense, but such narrative choices can be found in both literary and genre fantasy novels.
In a way, one of the biggest indicators for the reader regarding which kind of novel they’ve picked up is the world-building itself. Is it intense, a sweeping, all-encompassing setting, with all sorts of delightful details to give the novel its own flavor? Or is it more traditional, mirroring the readers expectations so that the only differences between the “real world” and the “fantasy/sci-fi” one is whatever the author explicitly mentions?
It may be easy to assume that novels with “lighter” world-building are “easier” reads because the reader doesn’t have to keep track of so many details and can focus on the plot at hand. That certainly does play a part, especially since “easy” or “light” reading tend to be fast ones as well, and world-building frequently slows the pace down. But it also circles back to the question of stakes and emotional investment.
Genre novels are light, fast reads because of that bare-bones world-building (or at least, in part). In a way, though, it’s almost a good thing. The more setting an author offers its readers, the more concrete the world becomes, and the more they care about the ending. Monsters of Verity could have easily been written either way; its writing style could have easily asked its readers to take it seriously, and could have added a lot more emotional weight by playing up the fight between Good and Evil, describing where the monsters came from, unveiling their ultimate purpose, and maybe even finding a way to rid the world of monsters completely. Instead, because the reader is only given what information is needed to deal with the plot at hand–i.e., the conflict between northern Verity and southern Verity, between Callum Harker (and his Malchai, Sloan) and Henry Flynn–the reader can infer that this is not a book about overarching morality or even, really, about the defeat of goodness over evil. This, by extension, gives the reader permission to not bother with questions or logistics, but rather, allow the book’s plot take the reader wherever it will.
Conclusion: The Successes and Failures of the Verity Duology
The novels offer enough information to keep the reader invested and to ensure the plot makes sense at surface level. That’s not to say the world-building was perfectly done. There were a few elements that might have enhanced the duology without making the series’ setting more complex than it needed to be. Firstly, when writing a book about monsters, the first thing to decide is whether they just appeared or if they have been around. Either solution is valid, but comes with its own set of questions. If one chooses to go the route of the former, it’s important to have some idea where the monsters came from and why they arrived at that time and not before or after. Why was the first Sunai created from the bombing of a building when a war might’ve made more sense? Etc. It may not be information the characters ever have access to, and as a result, it may never be something that can be answered for the readers. However, if the author knows the answer, some echoes of it can be found in the text; Verity reads as if Schwab could never be bothered to come up with some sort of plausible explanation.
This is an easily forgivable blunder, if only because it doesn’t affect the plot to any major capacity. But it does lead me to my next point, because when we don’t know how they are created, we the reader have no way of knowing if there is ever a future devoid of monsters. Our Dark Duet ends with the Chaos Eater and Sloan both killed, and the duology is written as if it’s a bittersweet happily ever after, almost as if the monsters are gone from Verity, except that doesn’t seem likely since killing one Malchai, however powerful, does not result in the death of all monsters. Considering Prosperity is confirmed to have a small monster problem of its own–nothing is said of Temperance or Virtue, but one must assume that if monsters don’t exist there, they will before long–the ending would have held a little more weight had it been confirmed that Verity found a way to rid itself of its monster problems, allowing those who survived to take their knowledge to the other cities and help fight for a completely monster-free world.
That said, even August acknowledges at the end of the duology that there is still work to be done. The world isn’t perfect, but several major evils have been conquered, and a character who fought so hard to understand what it means to be human finally found some semblance of the truth. That’s really all that the duology set up for its characters to overcome, and with those problems solved, there is at least a relatively fulfilling conclusion.