Lil and Kizzy are twins and Travellers, their lives ostensibly nomadic and free. But this is Romania in the late Middle Ages, a time of great persecution and danger for roaming communities, and tales persist of a northern prince with a penchant for stealing young Traveller girls, drinking their blood and inducing a malignant immortality. Your inner goth will be rewarded in The Deathless Girls by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, as we are introduced to the world of the dark prince himself. In this deliciously gothic feminist novel, Lil and Kizzy confront the legends and alter our Hammer Horror preconceptions.
We begin with the trauma of watching the Travellers’ beloved wagons torched by a band of murderous soldiers. Sadistic and thorough, they slay all they come across, including the twins’ mother. In these compelling opening chapters, a devastated Lil and Kizzy are captured and spirited away to the home of the Boyar. In feudal Eastern Europe, boyars were high ranking aristocrats. This particular boyar’s castle is a grim sight to behold.
‘Its turrets pierced the sky, black needles against the clouds, sharp as bared teeth set in grey gums.’
Set to work as kitchen servants, the despairing girls are destined to serve the men of the castle, in all imaginable ways. Meanwhile, somewhere across the wooded Romanian landscape, waits the Voivod, the dark overlord, anticipating his maiden sacrifices.
Romanian culture is famously rich in tales of spirits and the undead and many have been deftly woven into this refreshing feminist perspective, Dracula in shadow as we focus on the story his ‘brides’ wish to tell. It is exhilaratingly unpredictable.
Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s lyrical prose is well-tuned to the gothic and I loved the crimson motif, from a mere slash of lipstick, to the blood of the slain, and mirrored in the stunning book cover art of Olga Baumert. A dark and beautiful meditation on power and sisterhood.
The Deathless Girls by Kiran Millwood Hargrave is published by Orion Children’s Books, 400 pages.