Mila Flores is miserable. She’s an outcast at school because she’s fat, grumpy, and Mexican American in a town of skinny white people. She abides by Wicca instead of Christianity, much to the chagrin of her community. She is drowning in a sea of unrequited love for a boy who barely notices her. But mostly she’s miserable because her best friend Riley is dead. It was not, she’ll have you know, a suicide, no matter what the incompetent police say. They also declared the hangings of two other schoolmates, June and Dayton, to be suicides as well, despite the suspicious circumstances. No, someone killed Riley, and Mila is going to find out who no matter what it takes. Especially if that “whatever” means raising her BFF from the dead.
With the help of a creepy grimoire and her heretofore undiscovered magical abilities, Mila casts a spell that brings Riley back…and unfortunately June and Dayton, too. The quartet have seven days to investigate their deaths before the spell sends the undead back to their graves. Standing in their way are some very pushy parents, two boys with too many secrets, a disapproving school psychiatrist, a high school wannabe Lois Lane, and a coven of pissed-off witches. If Mila is going to fix her mistake and save the day, she’ll have to muster enough courage—and her magic—to fight back.
If you were a teen girl in America, you probably had one of two phases: horses or witchcraft. It should come as no surprise that I was definitely a witchcraft girl. I was obsessed with magic and mythology, the supernatural and the paranormal. I was the kind of kid who wore goth boots purchased from Hot Topic to church and sat in the back reading an illicit copy of Bram Stoker’s Dracula during the sermon. I was 13 when Buffy made her television debut and I watched with rapt attention. For years I had a spell I bought at a Ren Faire stashed in my secret box of KEEP OUT MOM!!! stuff. Probably still in there, packed away in an old cardboard box in the garage. Even now as an adult, I re-watch Hocus Pocus and Practical Magic nearly every October. Give me an opportunity to dress like Nancy Downs and I’m there. So yeah, Undead Girl Gang is right up my weirdo alley.
There is romance—two romances, in fact—but thank Hecate it’s secondary to female friendships. Too often in YA (hell, too often in fiction in general, regardless of format), friendships between women get pushed aside or destroyed by some obnoxious male love interest. Sometimes it feels like writers think women are incapable of having both a best girl friend and a boyfriend at the same time without them both being jealous over him. Anderson deftly handles that trope by walking right up to it and smacking it upside the head. After all, the title is Undead Girl Gang, not Witch Who Raises Her Bestie Only To Ditch Her When the Bestie’s Hot Older Brother Gets All Flirty.
Best friendship between teen girls is a tempestuous thing. It’s hard enough moving through life with all those hormones throwing you out of whack. Add to that having to deal with the whole of society having judgy opinions about every element of your being, the thrill of being inspired by pop culture only to be disappointed at the realization you’ll never live up to those impossibly high standards, and the chaos of discovering who you are and what you want in a companion.
Mila and Riley have a friendship forged in the heat of a battle against bullies, specifically June and Dayton. As two of the leaders of the Nouns, a clique of snobby popular girls, Dayton and June made it their personal missions to ruin Riley and Mila for the audacity of being different. Mila because she’s fat, brown, and middle class, Riley because her family runs a funeral home and mortuary. And I don’t mean that the Nouns are guilty of mere run-of-the-mill high school gossip. We’re talking years of full-on bullying. They weren’t just mean: they were cruel, and intentionally so. Riley survived only by embracing her rejection and making it her own. With her low self-esteem, Mila simply latched onto Riley and Riley’s interests and let her bestie take her along for the ride. Riley’s death means more than the loss of her only friend—it means Mila now has to face the world on her own.
For Riley and Mila to be stuck with their tormentors is hell on earth, but for June and Dayton it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance for a do-over. Anderson puts the work of reparations on the perpetrators rather than the victims. It’s a hard subplot, probably more so for those who were bullied themselves, but a necessary one. I don’t think any teenager will come out of Undead Girl Gang believing they can befriend their bully, but it’s nice to know that you will survive them.
I’ve seen a lot of comparisons between this book and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I’d say is more accurate to the movie rather than the TV show. Well, maybe the first two seasons at least. If anything, it’s The Craft crossed with Hocus Pocus and a pinch of Mean Girls. I guess what I’m getting at is Undead Girl Gang is the most delightful young adult zombie/witch small-town murder mystery romance I’ve ever read. It’s a playful and endearing romp through teenagedom, but with a pair of brass knuckles in its pocket for when things get rough. Don’t let the charming exterior fool you. This story has an angry, hurt heart that demands attention. It’s not at all what I expected, and is all the better for it.
Undead Girl Gang is available from Razorbill.
Alex Brown is a YA librarian by day, local historian by night, pop culture critic/reviewer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, check out her endless barrage of cute rat pics on Instagram, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.