REVIEW: The Deathless Girls – Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Author: Kiran Millwood Hargrave (twitter / website)

UK Publisher: Orion Children’s Books

Genre: Fantasy, YA

They say the thirst of blood is like a madness – they must sate it. Even with their own kin.

On the eve of her divining, the day she’ll discover her fate, seventeen-year-old Lil and her twin sister Kizzy are captured and enslaved by the cruel Boyar Valcar, taken far away from their beloved traveller community.Forced to work in the harsh and unwelcoming castle kitchens, Lil is comforted when she meets Mira, a fellow slave who she feels drawn to in a way she doesn’t understand. But she also learns about the Dragon, a mysterious and terrifying figure of myth and legend who takes girls as gifts. They may not have had their divining day, but the girls will still discover their fate…

When I first read about this book, I was expecting something a little along the lines of Uprooted, I think. The summary sounded quite similar – unexpected fates, a lord known as the Dragon… Boy howdy, I was very wrong. Could not have been more wrong.

First things first, there are several trigger warnings for this book, and there will be spoilers ahead: explicit racism, implied homophobia, threatened rape, physical abuse, and actual sexual assault in the form of ‘inspections’. It’s not an easy read, although it’s not a very long book. There’s a lot of violence against women in particular crammed into the pages, and it can make for a bit of an unrelenting narrative, particularly if you’re not entirely expecting it. And there’s nothing on the cover that would signal it – the hardback of this book is gorgeous, with foiling on the slipcase, foiling on the cover, and absolutely stunning painted endpapers.

I didn’t realise when I started reading this what this book was actually about. I wondered if mentioning it in my review would constitute a spoiler, but I’ve since seen the paperback release advertised with it, and it’s mentioned on the Amazon page, so I’m just going to go right ahead.

Dracula, it’s about the Brides of Dracula. It’s the origin story for the Brides of Dracula.

I found the pacing of the book a little odd. It’s just over 300 pages, and for the first 200 of those I wondered if maybe I had misunderstood, and it wasn’t a fantasy book at all. It read like a historical fiction, with some mention of psychic powers and spirits, but all accompanied by palm reading, psychotropic drugs, and a heavy dose of religion. Then in the last 100 we meet the strigoi – the undead, wraiths which were created by Dracula. It feels like a strange place to suddenly try and jam almost the entirety of the fantasy in, the final third of the book.

I did like that it took the mythology back to the origins of Dracula, to Romanian folklore and Vlad the Impaler. Although there are suggestions that Stoker only took the name and his knowledge of Romanian myth for his own work, this novel works as a way of bringing Vlad Tepes’s dark history and weaving it into the Victorian horror story we all know.

Lil and Kizzy are interesting heroines. Lil is very hesistant as our narrator, fearful and constantly comparing herself unfavourably to her twin. Kizzy, meanwhile, is portrayed as beautiful and passionate – unfortunately that also means she comes across as quite moody and uncompromising. Given the situation they find themselves in – captured, enslaved – this places her and Lil in a lot of danger. I did enjoy seeing Lil grow and change, however, and her love story was very sweet and tender, even if it didn’t end entirely happily.

I wish there were more books showing threat and dangerous situations for women which didn’t involve rape and sexual assault. While I realise these are a reality for so many women, and by no means should they be glossed over, I feel like in some books sexual violence is used to try and demonstrate how serious a situation is specifically for women. I don’t think this is entirely true of The Deathless Girls, and nor do I think its inclusion here is out of place for the setting, or that it’s used gratuitously. But when the first 2/3 of the book is so different from the final 1/3, it begs the question whether it was entirely necessary at all. I feel a shorter period could have been used to establish the setting, and then the book could have benefitted from moving to Dracula’s castle sooner.

The pacing in Dracula isn’t something I have always got on with – in fact, I’ve never managed to finish the book. But the idea that something is wrong slowly creeping on the reader is exactly the sort of thing that could have really worked well in this story. Instead of wasting time at the Boyar’s castle, skipping that section entirely and moving things to Dracula’s realm earlier would have allowed a slower build, more time to weave the fantasy and horror into the narrative, and more time to show Lil and Kizzy’s changing paths.

That’s not to say this is a bad book. It’s very well written, and I had been enjoying it even as just historical YA fiction, and then I enjoyed the horror section. I just felt that the two didn’t blend as well as I would have liked, and felt too distinct for my preferences. I would rather have skipped the first castle altogether, and brought the strange Castle Dracula in earlier. Why are people disappearing around them? Why are we constantly cooking meals which are never eaten? Why is Kizzy getting paler and acting stranger?

If you enjoy historical YA, and horror, you way well enjoy this book. I think perhaps my judgement is based on my own gothic narrative proclivities (even if I’ve never managed to read Dracula all the way through), and it does work as an accessible historical fiction. Even though the subject matter can be dark and difficult to wade through, the language is readable and the length isn’t too intimidating. It just didn’t quite get under my skin in the way I would have loved, given the source material.

Briefly:

  • A companion piece to Dracula, looking at the origin of the Brides of Dracula, but taken back to Romanian folklore and told with a YA spin.
  • There’s a nice bit of Queer representation in Lil, but even though I’m not sure it quite falls under “kill your gays”, it doesn’t work out.
  • The structure of the book means that the last third and the ending almost feel a little abrupt in contrast to the first 200 pages of the book. I think I would have loved something a little more gothic.

Rating: 3/5 – It’s a good book, but it didn’t hit the notes I would have liked, particularly given what it’s a companion piece to.

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