Doing Buffy One Better: Sawkill Girls and the Subversion of Genre Tropes

Decades of dead girls. Poor girls and rich girls. Black and brown and white girls. All of them Sawkill girls.

Hello, let me tell you about Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand, how much I loved it and how it tramples on a number of minor and major tropes like a boss. A horror YA novel, Sawkill Girls is about tradition, survival and death. It has four major viewpoint characters who are given equal footing in the story.

Plain and awkward new girl Marion moves to the small town of Sawkill Rock, a remote island with a close-knit community where everybody is nice to each other but also where dark secrets are kept. Along with her mom and sister, Marion is grieving the recent death of their father. Marion has always been close with her sister, but their relationship has grown fraught with the untold weight of their grief, which each family member handles in her own way. Their mother has become remote and unavailable; her sister, a party animal; and it is down to a tired, sad Marion to keep them together and to take care of them.

Upon arriving at Sawkill Rock, Marion befriends Zoey, the local pariah (nobody likes Zoey; she’s too mouthy) and daughter of the local sheriff. Zoey is grieving too: her best friend Thora disappeared and is presumed dead. She just broke up with her boyfriend, Grayson, a guy she really loves and who loves her back, and the two are attempting to remain friends. They broke up because Zoey came out as asexual and she thinks this is a problem for Grayson. (It isn’t.) Meanwhile, obsessed with Thora’s’s disappearance, Zoey finds out she was not the first one. Other Sawkill Girls have disappeared mysteriously, going back decades. And nobody seems to give a damn.

Val, the local rich and beautiful queen bee and mean girl, knows everything about the disappearances: they are actually her family’s fault. Back in the day, her great-great-grandmother made a pact with a demon and since then the women of her family have served said demon by handing over girls for him to consume. The demon gets stronger and stronger with each death (and will eventually be able to break away from needing human aid) and in exchange, Val and her family get long life, health, power, vitality, and safety. Her mother is the current favourite, but soon it will be Val’s turn to serve the demon completely. For now, all she has to do is help kill the girls. And the next one the demon wants is Marion’s sister.

And then we have the Rock itself. It knows it has a demon from another dimension—The Collector—on its shores. And it has been waiting for the right girl to come and get rid of it for a long time.

Sawkill Girls is a horror YA novel, and it would be easy to say that it’s laden with genre tropes. But Claire Legrand looks at these tropes with clinical eyes, exposing them, facing them, and effectively subverting them. This novel is in conversation with a lot of beloved stories, but mostly, I saw a lot of Buffy the Vampire Slayer here—both as homage to its successes and a confrontation of its failures.

(From this moment, on, spoilers ahoy!)

Girl victimhood is not new in the horror genre, and girls are the victims in this novel in different ways. From a supernatural point of view, they are the preferred victims of the specific demon that lives on Sawkill Rock, a demon who takes the appearance of men and who has a taste for young, pretty girls. On that same supernatural front, it is eventually revealed that there is a mysterious cult of self-proclaimed Knights (all male, of course) who operate around the globe, combating these demons from different dimensions with the aid of three Special Girls—three extraordinary girls that are given supernatural powers to fight the demons. Much like the Watcher’s Council in Buffy, The Hand of Light have existed for a long time and they use this triad of girls to do the fighting for them— to bleed to death for them. But here they go a step further: they use the girls’ blood to vanquish the demons themselves to earn all the glory.

But, Legrand shows us, this setup only works because these Special Girls are also victims of rape culture and the patriarchal society we live in: they too disappear and die and no one really cares because, after all, girls disappear and die all the time.

Girls, no matter how special or extraordinary, are truly and wholly expendable objects. They are special to the extent they serve a purpose. Once that purpose is met, often determined by things outside of their control, they are no longer needed,

When Marion, Zoey, and, to everybody’s surprise, Val start to develop amazing powers, they are amazed by it and ready to fight. They are sick and tired of seeing girls die. Zoey wants to avenge her best friend. Marion wants answers to her sister’s disappearance. Val wants freedom. But then they learn they are expected to literally fight each other to death and sacrifice themselves in order to let the male Knights defeat The Collector with the girls’ blood. They are told this in no uncertain terms: this is history, tradition, this is how things are done.

There is another trope here, another narrative tradition that Legrand is showing for the nonsense that it is: the Knights rely on that long-held belief that girls are always competing with each other and on the idea of the Cat Fight. And these men, these Knights, stand around these girls, watching them with a perverse and twisted thirst that borders on sexual and blood lusts.

But our girls rebel. They take control of their own power and they say No. They say ”We’ll hunt the fucker down. Together.” As such, we don’t have The Chosen One or the Final Girl. We have three girls who work together through their differences.

“Girls hunger. And we’re taught, from the moment our brains can take it, that there isn’t enough food for us all.”

Speaking of their differences, there are many. Zoey distrusts Val because she knows Val is responsible for the death of her best friend. Zoey and Marion also have a fight halfway through the novel, as Marion says something incredibly offensive about Zoey’s asexuality, and is immediately called on it by Zoey and Grayson. On top of everything else Sawkill Girls is doing, it also offers this type of welcome conversation about sexual identity, and it shows a super great romantic relationship between Zoey and Grayson as they try to navigate their feelings for each other. In another trope-defying moment, Grayson leaves all the violence to the girls and concentrates his energy on researching, cleaning, and baking for them.

But the character of Val and how she is developed is perhaps the biggest surprise in the novel, the biggest subversion of tropes—and there are many connected to this one character.

We have a character who is well and truly a villain to start with: Val is not only a Cordelia, an Alpha Bitch (the wealthy influential character who controls all of her clique), but more importantly, Val has been responsible for the actual death of Sawkill Girls by luring girls she befriends to be killed by The Collector. This always happens in front of her and she is responsible from collecting body pieces and making them disappear (this book does not shy away from full-on violence and following up on its own bloody premise).

But Sawkill Girls asks: is she willingly complicit or another girl victim? Born into a family that has been connected and subjected to the Demon for decades, it is all that she has ever known. Val has been tortured, subjugated into making hard choices that allow her to continue to live. When she meets Marion and falls in love (more on this later), when she starts to feel empowered by the supernatural boost she is given, she starts to question—and to feel more and more guilt.

The novel, through Val, investigates who gets to be redeemed and who doesn’t. Going back to Buffy, two of its main characters are villains turned redeemed anti-heroes: Angel and Spike. A lot of that show was focused on these characters’ redemption arcs, but I don’t think I have ever seen a narrative so fully on take a girl villain and redeem her without killing her. Val lives on at the end of this novel, but still has a lot to atone for, having to live with the guilt of what her family has done.

I was blown away by many things in this novel but primarily by Val’s arc, especially when seen in conjunction with two other related tropes. Val is queer (no labels are offered), Marion is bi, and they fall in love with each other. They even have sex. AND NO ONE DIES. There is no sign of Death by Sex, Dead Lesbians Syndrome or Psycho Lesbians here. (I love Buffy to bits, and I truly think that show subverted a lot of tropes itself, but boy, Tara’s death still stings.)

At the beginning I said that this is a novel about tradition, survival, and death, and that is true. But thinking more and more about it, Sawkill Girls is primarily a novel about what and who we value. Val is worth saving and worth of being kept around. So are Marion and Zoey. And so is every Sawkill Girl.

Ana Grilo is a Brazilian who moved to the UK because of the weather. No, seriously. She works with translations in RL and moonlights as a Book Smuggler along with her partner in crime Thea James. When she’s not at The Book Smugglers, or hogging their Twitter feed, she can be found blogging over at Kirkus with Thea or podcasting with Renay at Fangirl Happy Hour.

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