Review: Sawkill Girls

My January TBR is basically my December book haul (plus a couple of library books), and luckily I ended up with quite a variety that’s helping me read more impulsively this year, despite the constriction of a monthly TBR system. I actually let a friend choose my first book of the year from my January TBR box, and she picked Claire Legrand’s Sawkill Girls, a creepy YA fantasy that I’ve been meaning to read and finally grabbed a copy of in December. It was a great choice to start the year with!

sawkillgirlsAbout the Book: Girls have been going missing for over a hundred years on the island of Sawkill Rock. Everyone has heard the stories about the island’s magical villain, but few know which pieces of the lore are true. Zoey, the local police chief’s daughter, won’t accept non-answers about her missing best friend any longer. Marion, new to the island, becomes much more involved in the mystery than she ever would have thought possible. And Val holds the secret of generations of missing girls- a secret she’s quickly losing control of. Relationships between the three girls are complicated at best, but they may be the island’s best chance at stopping the monster as his greed and strength increase.

“Girl-ghosts swarmed Val’s brain. She could hear nothing but their wails, calling for her damnation.”

Legrand tries so hard for atmosphere, but she tries a little too hard, in my opinion. She uses a lot of visual descriptions, heavy on the adjectives, in a way that made it impossible for me to see this world beyond the page. As engaging as I found the story to be, I could never quite forget that I was reading words and turning pages.

Which isn’t to say that the book is not atmospheric or that I didn’t love the story. What gives Sawkill Girls its perfect creepy vibe is the slow addition of magical elements throughout the entire first half of the novel. The opening of the story feels so present-day and normal that I was confused for a long time about why this book is considered fantasy. Even as the magic is introduced, it feels more like metaphor or magical realism than full-blown fantasy, though it does find its target in the end. But the small, unsettling, otherworldly details really worked for me in a way that the visual cues in the writing did not. Every time I thought I had this story and these characters figured out, Legrand would throw in a whole new layer of intrigue and possibility that upturned my every assumption. That was the technique that completely won me over.

“It wasn’t in her ears as much as 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 borrowing bugs. Like summer cicadas buzzing in the trees at dusk, the cry droned.”

There were a few times when I thought the magical elements (especially Marion’s bone-cry, described above) made the girls’ sleuthing efforts a bit too convenient, but these were small moments of doubt and nothing more. Mostly, I bought into the magic and the ways that the three main characters discovered both the hidden secrets of their world, and the burgeoning powers within themselves.

Speaking of power, though this is indeed a fantasy book (despite whatever first impressions it gives), it is also very feminist and queer. Though there’s no real reason given for the monster’s need for young female victims, there is so much commentary about how these girls are strong enough to stand up for themselves and change the cycle. There are girls who like girls, girls who like boys, girls who don’t like sex at all. They all are given a voice and an audience.

“Marion couldn’t imagine a God like the one she’d grown up hearing about- some man sitting in the clouds, maneuvering the pieces of the world to suit his whims because he, of course, knows best. But she could imagine a God in the shape of an island crowned with trees, brooding in the middle of a black sea.”

One thing that didn’t work for me, both structurally and in the realm of Sawkill’s magic, was that the island itself is alive in a way. “The Rock” has its own perspective chapters woven between those of the three main characters- only a page or two at a time, scattered sparsely through the novel, but ultimately these seemed overly mysterious and gimmicky, and completely unnecessary to the overall story. The girls learn enough about Sawkill Rock and the history of its most notable inhabitants throughout the course of the novel that the Rock perspectives don’t add any vital information. I much preferred seeing the Rock through the girls’ eyes to seeing them through it.

Speaking of perspectives, I started out enjoying each of the three girls’ chapters, but about halfway through the book I’d had enough of Zoey. She’s a bit abrasive, and I didn’t always agree with the way she treats the people she loves. She wants to be accepted as the asexual, non-white, loud girl character that she is, and she should be, but the way she lashes out against her father, whose mistakes were well-intentioned, and Marion, whose crime is loving someone that Zoey despises, seem as inconsiderate as she’s accusing them of being. She’s constantly ignoring Grayson when he’s justifiably concerned, and expecting his help when she doesn’t seem to be returning the favor. She’s not all bad, of course; I think this comes down to a case of preferring one character (or in this case two) out of the perspective options- they rarely come out balanced completely even.

But I never did tire of the plot. The mystery and the obvious peril created by Sawkill’s monster kept me hooked until the very last page.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Even though clearly I had a few hang-ups, this book was a great start to my 2019 reading. I want to read a bit more YA and a bit more fantasy this year than I did in 2018, and Sawkill Girls made me excited for more of both. I’m on the fence about trying Legrand’s other big publication, Furyborn, as its premise doesn’t appeal quite as much to me as Sawkill Girls did, but I will be keeping an eye out for future Legrand publications!

Further recommendations:

  • Mindy McGinnis’s The Female of the Species is a great next read if you love teen girls fighting back against the men who hurt/kill them. There are plenty more animals in The Female of the Species for Legrand readers who love the horses of Sawkill Rock, though there aren’t any actual fantasy elements. There is still murder and danger and plenty of challenged stereotypes, and it’s a good (slightly heartbreaking) time.

What’s your favorite YA standalone fantasy?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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