[SPOILERS BELOW: Why? Because some books you need to just talk about in their fullness, and this is one of them]
This novel makes me think of being an English major in college again, but in the best possible way. Literary criticism and how to understand and employee it was one of the pillars of that education. To be truthful, most of it is pretentious bullshit when you get too much into the categorizations behind it. But what it did do was teach me to notice when a book was saying something far larger than what can be found in the text.
SAVAGE LEGION is such a book.
It will make you think. It will challenge you to analyze the world around you. In fact, it’s made me think so much that I’m pretty sure some of the thoughts I’m going to express on the book aren’t what the author was at all intending. But that’s the beauty of great books right? They allow you to imprint your thoughts on to it with no shame.
First and foremost, what made this book immediately catch my attention was the forcefulness with which it let you know this book was about the marginalized. And not in some perfunctory, “oh please marvel at my bare bones representation” way that seems to plague so much of SFF by those wanting cookies for performative diversity. No, this book grabs you by your neck and tells you that you are going to see oppressed characters and you will not get to turn away.
To understand the characters, I should lay out the world they’re living in. Crache is a nation built on so-called egalitarianism and efficiency in all things. In some distant past, the nobility and religion were shrugged off by the population in revolution and in its place grew an empire built solely around the idea of implementing a society where one’s usefulness was paramount. A society where a new gentry arose comprised of families that provided designated goods and services. Because of course, efficiency is found in repetition and wouldn’t the greatest efficiency be found in one family controlling the same good or service for generations? Whoo…I shouldn’t have to explain the corruption this creates.
Crache, as a nation, is a damning indictment of so many issues we’re wrestling with today. It shoves a fat middle finger right in the face of infinite economic expansion. It kicks the idea of empire so hard in the nuts, you can hear them pop. It snaps the neck of every misbegotten idiot who has ever suggested that a nation should be run like a business. It dunks the head of every person who thinks being poor is a moral failing right in their own putrid swamp water and makes them gargle it. Crache is not a nation to admire, to aspire to or to emulate. The place is pure horror. It’s horrible in all the obvious ways, but its hideous in all its perfections too. And it’s in this nightmare fueled by weaponized bureaucracy, that the characters of SAVAGE LEGION must navigate the ways society has failed them and their own privileges within it too.
Evie is a brown woman who grew up as poor in Crache and found her way into the care of one of these privileged families. They took her in and raised her as their own only to throw her out when she became inconvenient. The story lets you know this is horrible, but it also doesn’t shy away a complex truth. That brief time of being cared for placed Evie on much better footing than her counterparts. Because that’s how brutal societies operate. Even when they abuse you, their small nibbles of kindness leave you with just enough privilege to think that you owe them something. And it’s this sense of IOU (along with some other emotions) that drives Evie to track down a missing friend and join the Savages. As to what the Savages are, read the book…
Dyeawan is such a brilliant character because of how succinctly she captures Crache’s cruelty. This young girl, just as a character, left the kind of impression on me that sometimes whole novels fail to achieve. A poor, disabled girl living on the streets is taken into prison as a vagrant and finds herself conscripted into service with a man who appears full of kindness and Fatherly wisdom. He offers the life she’s never had before; a bed, food, friends and a machine that gives her the kind of mobility she’s never had in her life. And like Evie with her adopted family, she finds herself feeling gratitude for the man, but unlike Evie she doesn’t have to be confronted with horrors to challenge her privileges. She refuses to let the things that have been given to her blind her to the truth of the world. And this is what makes her the kind of hero we need more of in SFF. The choices she makes in this story never once failed to leave me breathless.
Lexi is a woman of privilege in Crache society, but one who is on the verge of having it stripped from her. An unnuanced story would have her vivisected as uppity, out of touch, deserving of her fate etc. But SAVAGE LEGION doesn’t take the easy path here. Lexi is a woman you can admire, appreciate the growth of and see that she wants to do the right thing despite the fact it took her privilege being challenged to motivate her in the first place. But I enjoy that the story allows her to grow. It makes her confront the things she’s ignored, and we get to see her become a force to try and change them.
Taru is the non-binary guard of Lexi and they serve as Lexi’s portal into the ways her privilege has kept her from seeing Crache as it truly is. A fascinating character who is easily one of the deadliest in the entire story, it is both heartbreaking and encouraging to see the ways they refuse to allow the gender-based oppression of Crache to make them less sure of themselves. It’s heartbreaking because you know that strength was built through repeated trauma and the book does a great job of subtly dealing with this. Taru understands implicitly a truth many other characters must learn as this story goes on; sometimes the oppressed have to use violence to make change happen.
If you aren’t convinced to read the book yet, I don’t know what else I can do to get you to. But if you do want to read it, just know there is still so much I didn’t even touch on in this review. There’s an enemies to lovers F/F romance in here, you get brutal battles, you get one hell of a plot twist and some killer ass sentences you’re going to need to savor.
Just read it.