The Deathless Girls by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
Published by Hodder & Stoughton, 2019
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
With echoes of classic fairy tales and dark fantasy, this young adult novel serves as a prequel to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, exploring the untold story of the ‘dark sisters’, often referred to in popular culture as the Brides of Dracula. In this respect, there’s a quiet tragedy that looms over the narrative; a sense of inevitability that plays nicely into the primary theme of fate versus freewill, as we watch Lillai and Kisaiya’s doomed attempts to gain freedom and escape eternal damnation.
Long before the concept of vampirism is introduced, themes of fear and othering have already come into play. Our protagonists are snatched from a community of Travellers, and they have long been exposed to vitriol and scaremongering thanks to a legacy of misinformed legend. During their time in enforced labour, Lillai also begins to explore her sexuality, falling for another of the castle’s captured girls. Though I felt some key moments of their blossoming relationship were rushed, impacting its believability, it was heartening to see a queer romance in a historical novel that is neither shoehorned in, nor the narrative’s driving force. I was also relieved that the youthful romance never detracted from the main dynamic under the microscope here; the power and importance of sisterhood.
The setting, tone, and prose all pay homage to the gothic genre, even if the writing does have a tendency to slip into melodramatic metaphors now and then. But to me, the book’s greatest strength is how well it pitches itself as a prequel/reimagining. Though the book’s biggest selling point is easily its ties to the lore of Dracula, the eponymous character is absent for almost the entire novel. This is successful for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s consistent with his surprisingly scant appearances throughout the original novel. Secondly, it avoids oversaturation of a character that is, by design, at his most commanding when he remains enigmatic and elusive. Thirdly – and most importantly – it allows this book to function wholly as the sisters’ story, reclaiming their names, natures, hopes, and dreams. By keeping the focus firmly on the girls as they were before they became Dracula’s companions, it grants them a quietly feminist agency that if anything, enhances the depth and impact of their eventual appearance in Bram Stoker’s masterwork.
So, while this may not be a perfect read, the occasional forays into overblown imagery, a somewhat hasty romance, and a few handy coincidences never detracted from how atmospheric and gripping it was. A book of this kind has two main functions: to pay tribute to a beloved classic, and to entertain based on its own merits. The Deathless Girls succeeds on both fronts.
If you’d like to give The Deathless Girls a go, you can pick up a copy from Book Depository by clicking here. If you’ve already read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts!