Evolution goes mad in this YA horror tale

Savannah Grey by Cliff McNish

The cover of this book attracted me – it’s not black for a start, and the green combined with autumn leaves is a winner.  The taglines suggest something nasty… but combined with romance, and the figure on the cover, you could be forgiven for expecting a rather soft supernatural tale.

But soft it is not! This novel is the opposite of those black-jacketed high school tales of glances across the room in maths, those slight touches brushing past in the lunch queue – there’s no time for that sort of slow-burn here.  Set in urban South London, the very first character we meet is a monster known as the ‘Horror’ who is monitoring a teenaged girl, Savannah Grey, asleep in bed …

Disobeying its orders, the Horror teased the sheet away from Savannah’s shoulders to reveal her neck. It discovered nothing unusual. Smooth skin. Soft flesh. The hollow of the throat rising gently up to the vocal chords. It was hard for the Horror to accept that inside that throat of hers was a weapon so uniquely powerful that if Savannah ever learned to control it there was virtually nothing which could stand against her.

But the Horror could hear the beginnings of that weapon. Distant noises. Faint rustlings. Distinctive click-click-clicks. They drifted in intervals from her lips. And occasionally even more ominous sounds emerged. Heavy booms. Muffled explosions – as if velveted bombs were igniting in the depth of her throat.

The Horror leaned avidly forward. It had an almost irresistible urge to wake Savannah by biting that throat of hers, but no, it couldn’t do that, it wasn’t allowed. Its task was merely to listen to the sounds and report the findings to its master, the Ocrassa.

Savannah is an orphan, and lives with foster mum Annette. She’s had a sore throat for a while, and has an imminent hospital appointment. Her best friend Nina persuades her to go to a party where she meets Reece, a boy with a scar across his throat – it’s love at first sight. Her throat is getting stranger,  she can no longer let anything go inside her mouth and she strikes out at the doctors and runs away. Taking a photo of her throat with her mobile, she sees she has something growing in it around her vocal chords – it’s obviously not natural, but she feels protective of it even though she’s producing strange clicks and bursts of energy from her mouth. It turns out Reece is similarly afflicted – maybe they can do this together?

We also meet the Ocrassa, an alien who arrived on Earth in space dust millions of years ago and has spent the time in between evolving. Chapters now alternate between the Ocrassa’s ongoing development in perverting the course of nature by assimilating it, and Savannah, realising that her voice is evolving into a weapon which she must learn to control, and that there must be a purpose to it all. It feels like winter’s on its way too for the leaves are swirling everywhere seeming almost alive. But if you thought we were set for a conventional battle, you’d be wrong, for McNish does something amazing!  He introduces a third monster, the Nyktomorph, another creature of the night and then more twists – but I can’t tell you more about it without really spoiling the plot.

McNish’s style is intense and direct. Lots of short sentences indicating action with no words wasted; longer ones more descriptive. I didn’t find this novel about the power of nature very scary, although its key teen audience might.  Savannah was difficult to get to like at first, but like her throat weapon, she does grow on you!  The monsters are fascinating and complex, and it is as much a coming of age story for them as for Savannah.  I really enjoyed it as a crossover novel and will search out his other teen novels – McNish is one to watch.  (8.5/10)

This post was republished into its original place in my blog’s timeline from my lost posts archive

Source: Own copy

Cliff McNish, Savannah Grey (Orion Children’s Books, 2010) paperback, 240 pages.

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