Sideways Pike is the reigning queen of loners and losers at West High. When the trio of Mean Girls at the top of the social food chain pay her forty bucks to do some magic at their pre-Halloween party, she accepts because why not, right? What else is she gonna do? And hey, easy money. The spell blooms brighter than Sideways expects and wrenches out of her control. Hours later she comes to and sees the metaphorical scar her magic left behind. So do the trio. Instead of being freaked out and casting her aside, Daisy, Yates, and Jing take her in.
The “unholy trinity” turned quartet explore the world of magic with the ferocity of a sugar-addled child on Halloween night. A whole new world exists just below the surface of the known one, a world of powerful covens and sinister devils. But just like in the real world, the magic world is infested with arrogant men who have corrupted magic into a tool of the patriarchy. Sideways, Daisy, Yates, and Jing wind up in the crosshairs of a family of witchfinders who delight in stripping the marginalized of what little power they accumulate. Now united under the coven name The Scapegracers, the girls will face down the witchfinders using the only weapon they have: themselves.
The story opens with a mystery. The girls setting out to find out who put the three dead deer at the bottom of Jing’s empty pool and why sets everything in motion, but it isn’t what keeps the story moving forward. The assault on Sideways by the Chantry boys, the ink devil who attached himself like a limpet to the girl gang, and the fledgling romance between Sideways and Madeleine push and pull the story in directions that at first seem random but eventually connect in disconcerting ways.
Clarke is extremely good at writing in a way that feels like everything and nothing is happening all at once. For some, it may come off as an overload of unresolved subplots and for others as if the story is moving at a glacial pace. But I would argue the pacing is perfect for the story being told. Long, bone-achingly decadent tracts of descriptive text buttress crackling dialogue and moments of surreal horror. The Scapegracers thrums with frenetic energy. Plots and subplots careen into each other like bumper cars at a carnival. Reading it felt like watching a primetime drama on The CW, all wild intensity and sizzling desire. And yes, I consider that a compliment of the highest order. There are few things I enjoy more than obsessing over 42 minutes of high octane drama with brooding stars and a storyline of barely contained chaos.
But the real draw of the novel are the girls themselves. Daisy is a living, breathing firecracker, a baseball bat studded with nails, a contradiction and a collision. Yates is softer and sweeter, but don’t make the mistake in thinking she’s delicate. Jing is the head bitch in charge. She is the snarling dog and the hand holding the leash and the studded collar all rolled into one girl with bleach-blond hair. Sideways is the main protagonist but she certainly doesn’t think of herself as someone with that kind of capacity. She exists on the margins, desperately seeking friendship yet unable to grab it when it reaches for her. A lifetime of trauma packed into her childhood left her with a fear of abandonment so great she preemptively abandons everyone. Apart, the girls are little more than a vicious clique and a weirdo. Together, they can set the world ablaze.
The Scapegracers are not demure little flowers who dream of going to prom and white picket fences. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. If that’s your thing, then go forth. But that’s not my thing and it isn’t a thing for a lot of young women and nonbinary people. We don’t all want a strapping young lad to sweep us off our feet; we’d rather shriek and scowl at the boys who try. The Scapegracers are full of righteous fury at a world that demands they playact like they’re in a 1950s white family sitcom then shames them for not living up to society’s impossibly high standards.
When society decides you don’t fit, it breaks you into pieces until you do. The witchfinders brutalize witches for having the audacity to thrive outside the mainstream, and they’re part and parcel of a cishet white male-dominated society that humiliates and assaults women, queer, and nonbinary people (especially those who are also BIPOC and/or disabled) because they do not, cannot, and refuse to conform. Yates says it best to Sideways during a private conversation:
I guess my point is that teenage girls aren’t supposed to be powerful, you know? Everybody hates teenage girls. They hate our bodies and hate us if we want to change them. They hate the things we’re supposed to like but hate it when we like other things even more, because that means we’re ruining their things. We’re somehow this great corrupting influence, even though we’ve barely got legal agency of our own. But the three of us – the four of us, counting you – we’re powerful. Maybe not in the ways that people are supposed to be, maybe in ways that people think are scary or hard to understand, but we are. Magic is ambiguous. It’s scary and flashy and everybody wants it and it really freaks people out. I guess it fits with the rest.
If The Craft were hella queer and racially diverse and didn’t hinge on the coven self-imploding, you’d get close to what Hannah Abigail Clarke’s The Scapegracers is like. Their novel is the angry teenage feminist story I wish I had when I was in high school, a story as jagged as a broken nail and as bewitching as a pop song. It will cut you with a rusty knife and you will smile and ask for another. And it’s wondrously, gloriously, capital “Q” queer.
The Scapegracers is available from Erewhon Books.