‘What did he say before you murdered him?’
‘He asked me to kill him.’
‘That’s convenient,’ she said.
‘And told me the Dragon had made his daughter a monster. He told me she was strigoi. They say the thirst for blood is like a madness – they must sate it. Even with their own kin.’
I remember really enjoying Kiran Millwood Hargraves’ The Girl of Ink and Stars – a novel which danced on the borders of fantasy, mythology, adventure and just a touch of politics – and I follow Hargraves on IG and Twitter where she is a really lovely warm presence, but for some reason I had not picked up anything else of her. I think I had stopped running the book club at school by the time The Island At The End of Everything came out. That is, until I read her The Mercies last year and was blown away by the sense of place and privation that she created, as well as the sense of community.
And it is fascinating reading The Deathless Girls only a few months later because the two novels are very similar.
Both are set in a land that is distant, here Wallachia in Romania, and both are set in the past. And both novels explore the tensions between two communities forced to live side-by-side: in The Deathless Girls, the tension is between the Traveller and the Settled communities, two peoples who live in uneasy proximity; in The Mercies, that tension existed between the Christian community and the Sami. And Hargrave is great at exploring that tension, without judging or demeaning either of the communities.
And both novels feature a Sapphic love that offers a warmth, a strength and a respite from the privations and challenges faced by the characters which is very delicately and lovingly crafted.
Here, we are in the forests of Romania, the sylvan expanse of Wallachia, and Hargrave throws us directly into the action: Kizzy and Lillai, twin sisters, are away from their Traveller encampment collecting mushrooms as the local boyar’s men descend on the camp, slaughter the adults and enslave the children, including Kizzy and Lillai when they come across the horror.
Violence and horror present a difficult balance for Young Adult novels and Hargrave does not dwell on but does not sugar coat it either:
A thin, dark hand on a delicate wrist, whorled with knotted bones and age. A hand that all my life had pressed kindness or punishment upon me. A hand that tomorrow would have taken mine and showed me my fate.
Old Charani’s hand.
It fell as the sword sliced down again, and again, in an awful, ceaseless rhythm until she stirred no more.
Equally, the fate of slave girls in Boyar Valcar’s castle – the ever-present threat of rape that these girls face – is made very clear. And Valcar’s castle, full of brutality and viciousness, is as nothing compared to the Dragon, the mythical warlord above Valcar who
had a particular liking for young Traveller girls with talent. They called him the Dragon, and it is said he made them perform until they were husks, the prettiest expected to do more than perform: he ruined them, then drank their blood, and so was immortal.
The Dragon – and the path from Boyar Valcar’s castle to him – takes us from historical into a horror much closer to Stoker’s Dracula than the more historical Vlad III. Hargrave is without doubt a talented writer, so it is a little disappointing that her treatment of the undead strigoi and the Dragon felt a little familiar: undead children and impaled soldiers feel a little… tired. Perhaps to a Young Adult reader they will be fresh and vivid, but there is so much vampire in culture that I wish Hargrave had done something more original. But perhaps there is nothing more original to do with vampires. At least they don’t sparkle.
For me, in terms of pace, I found that the novel opened and closed really well: the attack on the caravans and the capture of the children was fantastic, as was the flight from the boyar’s castle towards the Dragon’s realm as the darkness of Dracula’s presence and the strigoi made the shift from folk tale to horrifying reality. The middle section lost a lot of that pace: the plight of the girls in slavery was a little episodic and, to say it dragged is unfair. It did, however, become slower. And I wonder about the love between Lillai and Mina – and isn’t that a name to conjure with in Stoker lore! Their love was exquisitely written but felt a little – I don’t know – anachronistic: everyone who realised they were in love simply accepted it without question or challenge.
And the ending of the novel felt almost too easy. For anyone familiar with Stoker, there was only one conclusion that this novel could ever reach, but the sisters’ ability to bargain with and to sway and to contain the threat that was Dracula just seemed a little underwhelming – moving certainly, but too easy.
This clearly warrants its place on the Carnegie Medal Longlist, and probably on the shortlist but, hand on heart, I do not think it is a winning book.
Plot / Pace:
Page Count: 400
Publisher: Hachette Children’s Group
Date: 19th September 2019