I used to think to make people feel afraid was a curse, an awful thing. But I’d love for them to fear me. I want them to look at me and weep.The Deathless Girls, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
If you’d told me several months ago that within the next few weeks, I’d be completely consumed by a teenage vampire novel, I would’ve laughed. It’s not that I don’t appreciate vampires, per se. Dracula remains one of my favourite classic novels, and I do admit to occasionally exploring the trope of the tortured undead in my own work. However, the YA trend of the swoony blood-sucking love interest did rather put me off the genre for a bit back in the 00’s.
So when I picked up Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Deathless Girls, I must admit I wasn’t sure what to expect. Still, I love Hargrave’s writing, so of course I was going to read it. Fortunately, there are no Cullens here, only the old-school damned — blood-thirsty and tragic, monstrous and grotesque, and all the more terrifying given Hargrave’s poetic style.
The Deathless Girls follows two traveller twins, Lil and Kizzy, after their camp is razed by soldiers, the survivors sold into the possession of a greedy Boyar. Forced to work in the Boyar’s castle, the sisters hear chilling rumours of an unholy pact between their new overlord and the Prince of the realm, the dreaded Dragon. But when beautiful Kizzy attracts the unwanted attention of a visiting Lord, Lil may be the only one able to save her sister’s life — and perhaps, even her soul.
Stoker devotes all of two chapters in his novel to the brides of Dracula — or, as they’re called in the original text, the three sisters. It is hardly surprising that Hargrave has chosen to add to their story in her first work for a YA audience. Girls has everything you would expect from one of Hargrave’s novels: characters who are vibrant and unique, a vivid setting, and striking imagery, the threats in the dark both deliciously thrilling and horrific by turns. By far, the beating heart of the story resides in the relationship between the two sisters, multifaceted and delicate as it is. Lil is a reluctant but steadfast protagonist, her gentleness contrasted with her sister’s fierceness and beauty in a way that’s all too easy to relate to.
That said, the novel does suffer from the fact that it is, more than anything, an origin story. While the first half of the novel fully immerses the reader in its setting, the claustrophobia of the girls’ hopeless situation contrasted with their sisterhood and their memories of home, the second half seems all too aware that it has to somehow bridge the gap between these traveller twins and Dracula’s brides. In fact, the third of the brides is only introduced almost as an afterthought, in a sort-of epilogue to the main action of the novel.
As well, uncharacteristic for Hargrave, the bad guys in Girls are painted in matte colours, without hope of redemption — even Dracul, and to some extent, even Kizzy. But the worst monsters in the book are the normal folk just doing their jobs, their evil all the more unforgivable given its mundanity. Perhaps it’s because of its YA audience, but Girls is, on the whole, an entirely more grim take on the world compared to most of Hargrave’s repertoire.
But what else should we expect from a foray into the Dracula mythos? Even before Stoker, vampires were an outlet for examining the most cursed and taboo aspects of our nature. Kiran Millwood Hargrave has done the tradition justice, all while shedding a little more light on the feminist powers of the night.