Sixteen- year-old Marion arrives at Sawkill Island with her mother and her elder sister, all three of them still in shock and traumatised after the death of Marion’s father. Marion became the de facto rock of their little family, tethering their mother and Charlotte together. But Sawkill, which was meant to be a sanctum for them, turns out to be everything but. Sawkill Island is “like this thing, perched out there on the water. A beetle. A monster. Some magical lost place.” The magic, however, isn’t the fun kind.
Marion’s mother has been hired as housekeeper for a large estate, Kingshead, which is ruled over a steady line of Mortimer women over generations, who raise prize winning horses and somehow never have any significant men in their lives—no husbands, lovers, sons, brothers. The Mortimer women are magnetic, as Marion soon finds out, when the teen daughter of the house Val adopts Charlotte into her fold. But Charlotte vanishes in the middle of the night soon after her family’s arrival on the island, like so many young women have on Sawkill over the years, and Marion starts to realise that the buzzing in her head and the rattling in her bones may be an indication is something is very, very wrong on the island, and not just with her. She’s had a physical reaction to the island almost upon arrival: a noise inside that will not recede: “it was in her bones, working its way out from the inside. It vibrated in her marrow as though her entire self teemed with tiny burrowing bugs. Like Sumer cicadas buzzing in the trees as dusk, the cry droned, Escalated. One cicada. Four. Fourteen. Four hundred. Fourteen thousand.”
Meanwhile Zoey, a local Sawkill girl whose best friend recently vanished as well, is certain that Val Mortimer has something to do with the disappearances. She and her best friend Grayson are trying to piece together rumour, legend, and bits of information gleaned from her police chief father’s strange little secret diary to find out what’s been happening to the island’s girls over the years. When Zoey meets Marion, they form a bond of the grief of having lost loved ones, and attempt to figure out what the island seems to be trying to tell them. For Marion, “the cry remained—a rattling in her bones, a vibration of wings and crawling tiny feet, a resonance of crunching teeth and a distance relentless turning, like the black water surrounding Sawkill. And something else, something amid the cicadas ad the rattling and the grinding that she couldn’t put her finger on. A pull, she thought, In all the noise, there was a pull.”
Marion, Zoey, and Val are not friends. Theirs is a complicated alliance eventually, but before that it is a strained, tense connection that the girls themselves don’t quite understand. Zoey’s anger and hatred of Val appears to be firm at first, but Marion finds herself attracted to Val, and Val to Marion, which complicates matters when the girls find out about Val’s part to play in the disappearances of their loved ones. But Val isn’t the enemy, as the girls slowly come to see. Val herself is trapped, intrinsically (and magically) linked to the island’s own personal bogeyman, known in local urban legend as The Collector. A desperate, visceral bond exists between Val and her personal demon, inherited from generations of Mortimer women who have all been used by this evil.
Living at Kingshead, only ever bearing their mother’s name, “they miscarried boys until they birthed a girl. They were vigourous and vital and so lolly they made people cry for wanting them, and they would have been long-lived, if he had allowed them that. They never got sick, and they never broke bones. The blood in their veins wasn’t entirely their own, and that gave them power over the unwashed masses, made others sit up and listen, too afraid to interrupt. There was a magnetism to the Mortimer women, and they knew it, this witchery; they’d given up their souls for it. So they grew up on the island, there enslaved goddesses, and taught their daughters how to keep him happy. How to serve him and feed him, how to guide his blind and fumbling self to the kill and lure in the catch, because it was that much sweeter to him, when his meals came willingly. A Mortimer woman, taught her her daughter how to keep him solid and strong in this world, how to never question his orders, how to remain in peak physical function so he could upon her energy when he needed to and fortify himself.”
Legrand does so well by her characters, her brilliant, flawed, complicated and beautiful Sawkill girls. She handles with great aplomb an asexual character’s attempts at balancing a romance that is now a friendship, a burgeoning queer teen relationship, a toxic, abusive mother-daughter relationship, just as well as she handles the evil monster that systematically attacks the island’s teenage girls to gain strength. It’s quite a feat to be able to handle the fraught, delicate balances of teenage female friendship as well as the violence and stress of an actual inhuman monster.
Sawkill Girls is a fast-paced thriller with real horror elements, some supernatural twists, quickly developing relationships, and constant, palpable tension. The narrative steadily provides Stephen King-style chills, mixed in with some Pretty Little Liars, in the best way possible. Stephen King never managed teen girls as well as this, and Pretty Little Liars never managed real feminist horror as well as this. Because that’s what this book is: a feminist horror story about what it means to grow up as a teenage girl burdened with generations of toxic, abusive patriarchal demons. It’s about what it means to form bonds with other girls, to empathise with them in ways you never thought possible, to draw strength from each other instead of destroying each other in ways that a sexist system would benefit from. Because while Sawkill Girls does indeed feature a real, actual monster, Legrand makes no bones about the fact that the real monsters are the men who would use women for their benefit, turning them against each other in the process. But here are a set of young girls willing to do what it takes to change the narrative. As Val says, “Screw that book […] It was written by men […] We’re rewriting it.”
Sawkill Girls is available from Katherine Tegen Books.
Mahvesh loves dystopian fiction & appropriately lives in Karachi, Pakistan. She writes about stories & interviews writers the Tor.com podcast Midnight in Karachi when not wasting much too much time on Twitter.