Kiren M Hargrave’s previous novel, The Way Past Winter, is a middle grade centering on a small family disrupted by tragedy and quest. As her first step into the YA market The Deathless Girls incorporates darker themes and serious undertones, but does not provide the character development and writing style that YA novels typically project.
Being apart of a small travelling community, living in wagons built by their ancestors, moving from camp to camp while leaving no trace on the forests that provides for them Lil’s life has always been tranquil. But when returning from a foraging trip with her twin sister, Kizzy, Lil finds her world destroyed: settlers burn their wagons, slaughter their elders, take the children for slaves and the bears for dog fighting. Sold into slavery as a novelty pair of twins Kizzy and Lil face the prospect of becoming serving girls in a court where the lords feel they can take whatever they want from their slaves. When Kizzy’s desire to fight leads her to a more dangerous ruler, known for stealing the lives of his desperate subjects, Lil escapes and embarks on a dangerous rescue, knowing there’s very little chance she’ll reach Kizzy in time.
When home was a person and not a place, once they were gone you couldn’t get back. Home was lost for ever.
Lil’s narrative is riddled with envy. Having always lived in Kizzy’s shadow unsure who she is without her twin her chapters are lost and confused. While her sister is feisty and determined, Lil feels defeated and unsure of herself. Even as she grows in confidence throughout the events of the novel she never fully develops a character for herself, her choices and decisions marred by Kizzy’s actions. This lack of development makes her a difficult character to understand and an uncompelling narrator, lacking any direction or storyline of her own. The plethora of side characters were unusual and well developed, each holding unique personality traits that weaves the rich tapestry of the world the sisters find themselves in. They present new aspects to the world holding their own goals and backstories as their lives interweave with that of the twins’.
Kizzy, Lil’s sister, is pivotal to the plot. Her resentful, angry character remains the driving force of The Deathless Girls while her life is marred by a beauty Lil, her identical twin, doesn’t share. In Lil’s eyes, and as is presented to the reader, Kizzy is portrayed as perfect: brave and beautiful, however her choices effect the sisters greatly and it would have been interesting to see her thoughts and opinions leading up to such damaging decisions. Mira, another serving girl at the castle, is also a central character. Timid at first, she becomes fiercely protective of Lil as she develops in confidence and bravery during the novel. Her character was interesting and well crafted, it would have worked well to have seen her flourish more, her throat injury meaning she can say little but her gentleness with Lil revealing a lot.
The setting of Deathless Girls is simple and standard: a simple feudal system hierarchy, many descriptions of which readers will be familiar with from other fantasy novels, with peasantry and slaves working the fields and lords and ladies ruling from castles. The girls’ camp presented more originality and, while many of the customs and details were lifted from history, this setting presented a more unfamiliar territory. The final seeing presented in the novel: a town destroyed, patrolled by soldiers at day and vampires at night, where our protagonist finds refuge in a destroyed church, barring the door before the discovering the bones of those who had this exact defence strategy previously, is ominous and exciting. This final setting added an almost post appoclyptic fear to our characters as they roamed the ruined streets, adding suspense and a fearful undertone for the ending of the novel.
The overarching plot of The Deathless Girls is well written and intriguing, peppered with unexpected events and twits. Although aspects such as the imprisonment or escape were not original the author adds her own take, presenting an intriguing read. Certain details, however, felt random: Lil’s brother is described and often talked about in passing but serves no plot purposes and has very little bearing on the characters or their motives, the girls’ go to great extent to learn of their magic powers only to never have a need for them, Lil struggles with her jealousy for her sister but these issues are never addressed and her character never develops further. These details required more embellishment or purpose, representation or importance, rather than being mere facts that served no purpose for our protagonist or her development. The choice to included three unreliable and vague prophecies at the beginning, one for Fen, Lil and Kizzy, added an air of suspense and confusion to the plot as Hargrave artfully works the half truths into the story and overall an entertaining tale is told.
The writing style is unadorned and digestible. The author favours simple and transparent techniques, surface level motifs with an orthodox vocabulary and few pretty descriptions. This makes The Deathless Girls a quick and effortless read. Throughout the novel Lil remains our narrator. Her character is practical and nervous, making her difficult to connect with at times while her narrative comes off as honest and trustworthy, rarely effected by her personality or feelings. A more intriguing narrator or more personal development could have made this story more enticing and complex, the lack of personality detracting from the novel. Similarly, a narrative from Kizzy could have further embellished the novel as her choices and personality remained so key to the plot. The focus on their relationship is central to The Deathless Girls however Lil doesn’t fully understand her sister which made it difficult for a reader to gauge her feelings either.
A vampyre cannot love, only thirst.
The novel felt well paced, Hargrave balances the three settings well: the camp they are taken from, the lord’s house and finally the Vampire town. Each location vastly different from the last presenting a unique and intriguing backdrop. Hargrave balances suspense throughout the novel as the characters appear to be building up for a final struggle and the ease with which they make their final choices felt anticlimactic. The ending swiftly moves to describing Dracula’s brides but this felt rushed and lacked emotion, the brides’ descriptions and actions feeling vastly different to the girls who are pivotal to this novel. Again, more character development could have been incorporated throughout the novel to make this ending more powerful and to add more gravitas to the final decisions each character makes.
Many complex relationships are presented throughout the novel. Pivotal to the story is the relationship between the twin sisters, Kizzy and Lil. While showing a certain reliance and closeness to one another this relationship felt flawed and one sided: Lil adoring Kizzy, relying on her for all their decisions, while Kizzy having little regard for her apparently spineless sister. Surprisingly the trauma in the castle slowly draws the sisters apart as they begin keeping secrets and shift their aims and goals away from one another. This makes Lil’s choices throughout the novel feel nearly thoughtless, lacking in passion and love for her twin that the author attempts to conjure, the only feeling she routinely presents towards her sister being jealousy. Had this relationship been detailed further and developed more these decisions would have felt less routine and more passionate.
Lil’s relationship with Mira was more touching. The two girls are nervous to begin and the closeness they grow to each other and the sacrifices they make are heart warming. This relationship is pivotal to the plot and was well crafted. Often warring with Lil’s relationship with her twin, the two straining against each other as Lil is forced to choose between them, these choices would have felt more powerful had Lil’s love for Kizzy not appeared so robotic. The final relationship portrayed in The Deathless Girls, friendship, is shown through Fen and the other women in the kitchen. The sense of comradarie amongst the slaves and kitchen girls was touching and the loyalty they showed one another refreshing and loving. Fen, too, proved to be loyal and loving, his character a valuable addition to the plot as he ventures with Lil to rescue Kizzy.
They say the thirst of blood is like a madness – they must sate it. Even with their own kin.
The Deathless Girls deals with serious issues of sexism, racism and homophobia in an open way as the theme of justice persists throughout the novel. Lil, our narrator, is an LGBT+ woman of colour and makes a her narrative from this perspective. Hargrave strives to incorporate these struggles and all her characters are built with a wealth of diversity which never feels token. Lil and Mira struggle with rejection from their peers as their relationship blossoms, particularly highlighted in Kizzy’s dissapproval, another aspect driving the sisters apart. The sister’s difference from the settlers, their way of life being criticized and their religion being mocked is a persistent theme throughout the novel that highlights key underlying issues in both this society and ours. Similarly, the treatment of women is highlighted through the serving girls and kitchen hands. The underlying theme of justice stems from this treatment as Kizzy longs for vengeance, this theme persisting in both this tale and that of Dracula’s brides.
Despite the youthful repour and simple writing style that makes the novel feel aimed at younger readers the inclusion of rape, murder and slavery suggests it’s aimed at teenagers. The protagonist is seventeen and the novel deals with darker implications that readers should be prepared for.
The beautiful damned, the brides of Dracul, the deathless girls.
Overall The Deathless Girls presents an interesting although not entirely original plot. It lacks a poignant writing style and character development that would have made the novel more compelling to read.