I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula when I was in grade ten. It was a difficult novel to read, one of those books where you start reading a paragraph and end up daydreaming about something else for ten minutes. It took me a long time to finish. But it was a point of pride. I was on a mission to read all the great works of classic literature I could get my hands on (which were also incidentally free to take out from the library.) To me, Dracula was the classic that defined gothic literature.
Hachette Children’s Group recently launched the Bellatrix series – feminist retellings of classic works of fiction for a whole new audience. Superstar author Kiran Millwood Hargrave was tasked to take on Dracula.
In this dazzling and imaginative retelling, there are no back and forth letters between Jonathan and Mina warning of a coming menace. Millwood Hargrave’s subjects are the beautiful and terrible brides of Dracula. The novel is their origin story.
When I first heard about the book, my little gothic heart started doing cartwheels. It’s finally arrived in South Africa, in Spooktober no less, and the timing couldn’t be more perfect. It’s the Halloween read I was waiting for.
The Deathless Girls is set before the brides meet their fate. The reader is plunged into a violent past seen through the perspective of Lil, a Traveller girl who finds herself captive of a brutal regime, alongside her twin sister Kizzy.
Having just turned seventeen, the twins have their whole lives ahead of them. Their Traveller camp is about to move on when they are attacked by soldiers and captured. The girls are separated from the rest of their people and thrown into the service of a neighbouring lord.
The world they find themselves in is cruel and brutal, but the source of evil goes even higher, to a man known as the Dragon, the most dangerous and feared of all men.
The girls do not accept their new lot in life gently. They fight and claw and dream of escape. But a worse fate is still to come when Kizzy is sent to dance in the Dragon’s court.
The Deathless Girls takes two obscure female characters from the original novel and transforms them into the heroes of their own destiny. Lil and Kizzy are Travellers, viewed with disdain and seen as unclean and untrustworthy. They have their agency and dignity stripped away. Later they fall victim to the ultimate monster, Dracula himself.
Lil and Kizzy face this world full of cruelty and injustice with their heads held high, and when they come face to face with their destiny, they accept it on their own terms. It’s a powerful story that resonates in the present day landscape of strong men and heart-breaking headlines. It teaches you to stay strong and hold on to what you believe in.
It took me almost a year to finish reading Dracula. That poor, battered copy gathered a lot of dust. This book took four hours, not because it’s an easier read – it’s smart, layered, all-encompassing, compelling. The truth is I couldn’t stop reading for even a second. Lil and Kizzy’s tale captivated me completely.
Thanks to The Deathless Girls, the brides are no longer nameless characters thank slink in the shadows. They are real young women with a past, who have loved and lost and have seen more than most. They are girls with a destiny.
It’s about time the brides of Dracula had their own story, and what a story it is.
Read my review of Kit de Waal’s Moby Dick retelling here.