The Deathless Girls by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

The Blurb On The Back:

”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.”

On the even of their divining, the day Lil and her twin sister Kizzy are to discover their fate, they’re captured and enslaved by the cruel Boyar Vallarta.

Far away from their beloved Traveller community, and forced to work in the harsh castle kitchens, Lil finds some comfort in the storm-eyed Mira, a fellow slave who she’s drawn to in ways she doesn’t understand.  But too soon she also learns about the Dragon, a mysterious and terrifying man of myth, who takes girls as gifts.

They may not have had their divining day, but the girls will still discover their fate …  

You can order The Deathless Girls by Kiran Millwood Hargrave from Amazon USAAmazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Twins Kissaiya (Kizzy) and Lillai (Lil) are Travellers who, together with their mother, younger brother Kem, their bears Albu and Dorsi and a number of other families roam Eastern Europe.  Although Lil is the oldest by 8 minutes, Kizzy’s stronger personality and beauty means that Lil is content to follow in her shadow.  Their clan are due to leave their current forest camp but Kizzy and Lil’s mum persuades their leader, Old Charani to stay an extra night because with the girls turning 17 the next day, it’s time for their divining when Old Charani reads their palms to tell them their futures.  Kizzy wants to be an ursar (someone who trains and dances with captured bears) and has her mother’s gift of handling while Lil dreams of being a singer, even though she’s too shy to do so in front of other people.

While the girls are out foraging for mushrooms, soldiers working for the local lord, Boyar Valcar, attack the camp, murdering all the adults (including their mother) and killing their bear Dorsi.  Lil gets Kem and Albu away to safety but she, Kizzy and the other youngsters are all captured and taken into slavery where the twins are chosen by Valcar’s feared housekeeper, Mistress Malovski, to serve him in the castle – whether that’s in the banquet room or his bed.  

Kizzy and Lil have few allies in the castle.  The majority of staff are prejudiced against Travellers and all are scared of Malovski’s cruel rage.  Worse, the twins are divided on what they need to do to survive, with Kizzy determined to fight and defy their captors while Lil counsels submission if that’s what it takes and Kizzy is jealous of Lil’s developing relationship with Mira (a fellow slave who almost lost her voice thanks to the violence she suffered at the hands of the Boyar), warning Lil that Mira is a ‘Settled’ and can therefore never be trusted.

Worse is to come though when Kizzy’s beauty attracts the attention of the Boyar’s overload, Boyar Calazan, who wants to take her to the Voievod – the Dragon – who rules over them all.  And all know the legends of the Dragon – even the Travellers – how he likes Traveller girls with talent and how he drinks their blood to keep himself immortal …

Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s YA gothic fantasy (a homage to the ‘dark sisters’ in Bram Stoker’s Dracula) has some beautifully written scenes and shows the discrimination faced by Travellers but there’s not much plot, Lil’s first person POV leaves Kizzy under-developed and in the final quarter, her disappearance means that a key decision has no tension or explanation while the ending is very weak such that it doesn’t do the dark sisters justice.

I’ll start with what I like about this book.  Hargrave has a beautiful way with description and emotion and some of the scenes – notably the first scene where the girls serve in the Boyar’s dining chamber – are sinister and richly detailed with an eye for cruelty and fear.  I also believed in Lil’s first person point of view and the way she subordinated herself to the more vibrant Kizzy plus the attraction she has for Mira (although I wanted more development in their relationship beyond physical attraction and Mira’s admiration for Lil’s singing).

The problem is that Lil’s character doesn’t really change throughout the book.  She starts it in Kizzy’s shadow, subordinating her will to her sister’s, and she ends it in much the same spot.  That’s a big problem for me given what happens at the end of the book, especially because the only real agency she shows is when she decides to go after her sister and try to rescue her so for her to take charge, lead the rescue party and then make the decision she does (which basically boils down to not wanting to be separated from Kizzy), feels like a step backwards.  It’s not helped by the fact that all we get is Lil’s point of view so when Kizzy disappears, Hargrave’s reliant on her reporting and summarising what’s happened to her, which removes a lot of the tension and horror that the reader should feel.  It also reduces Kizzy’s motives for her decision to one of revenge which, for me, wasn’t quite convincing enough (albeit that she is shown as being impulsive to the point of being impetuous and unthinking when it comes to trying to stand up for herself).  Given that she goes from trying to keep Lil with her while she’s being taken away to being willing to sacrifice the younger brother she thought was safe (who seems to have got caught purely for plot reasons), that’s one heck of a change in her personality and one that I needed to understand her motivations better in order to buy into.

The plot is really thin – the girls are captured, they’re slaves, they then end up in Dracula’s castle and that’s pretty much it.  On top of that, the sisters are essentially robbed of their agency for much of the story, given that they’ve been reduced to slaves.  There’s are numerous references to how girls are seen as sex objects there for the gratification of the Boyar and his men in the book, although the most disturbing scene is one where the Malovski essentially sexually assaults them to find out if they’re virgins.  Malovski was, for me, a more sinister and threatening character than the Boyar or Dracula.  With her painted face and casual cruelty, she literally holds power of life or death over the girls and controls the conditions in which they live, which is partly why I was so disappointed by how Hargrave resolves her story as it felt like a cop out, especially given the reason why Kizzy makes her decision.  

Dracula himself is a bit of a damp squib, slightly flat and two-dimensional but then that is the point – this is the story of the twins and not him.  Unfortunately for me, Hargrave doesn’t really do them justice and although I just about believed in their relationship, I didn’t believe what drew them into Dracula’s domain and it’s kind of interesting that in choosing to respond to Dracula by focusing on his brides, Hargrave throws the third queen under a bus with a shady aside in the epilogue.  Ultimately although this book didn’t do it for me, I would still check out Hargrave’s other work.  

THE DEATHLESS GIRLS was released in the United Kingdom on 19th September 2019.  Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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