#WitchWeek2022 Day 2: Travellers in Wallachia

Roche Castle

Chris Lovegrove

The Deathless Girls
by Kiran Millwood Hargrave.
Bellatrix / Orion Children’s Books, 2020 (2019).

In the moonlight opposite me were three young women, ladies by their dress and manner. I thought at the time that I must be dreaming when I saw them, they threw no shadow on the floor. […]

Two were dark, and had high aquiline noses, like the Count, and great dark, piercing eyes, that seemed to be almost red when contrasted with the pale yellow moon. The other was fair, as fair as can be, with great masses of golden hair and eyes like pale sapphires.

‘Dracula’ by Bram Stoker, chapter 3.

Marginalised for centuries in Europe, the Roma or Romani – here called Travellers – are known from linguistic and genetic evidence to have originated in northern India. Seen as entertainers and fortune-tellers by settled populations, they have been feared and abused for both their visible differences and their nomadic life.

And so it is that in eastern Europe Romani twins Lil and Kizzy, at some indeterminate time between the 14th and 19th century, find their encampment attacked and their people either trapped and burnt to death or captured by a boyar’s soldiers. Unbeknown to them their ultimate destination will be a castle in Wallachia, Romania, but in the meantime their main concerns will be to stay alive and to punish their persecutors.

Knowing that Kiran Millwood Hargrave drew one of her themes from Stoker’s Dracula, we can guess where the title may possibly lead us, but The Deathless Girls aims to be much more than simply another ghoulish Gothic tale. As the narrator Lillai tells us, “a vampire cannot love, only thirst,” yet the novel aims to explore other issues including prejudice, cruelty, power, carnal love, familial ties and, inevitably, damnation.

Musidora (Jeanne Roque) as Irma Vep in Louis Feuillade’s ‘Les Vampires’

Despite differences in personality Lillai and Kisaiya are inseparable, though the elder twin Lil, a singer, is less headstrong than her sister, a dancer with bears. They are set to work in the boyar’s castle under a stern taskmistress, and struggle to get sympathy from the non-Romani slaves in the kitchens. But when a visiting boyar picks out Kizzy, their dancing bear and the sister’s brother to travel north with him, Lil finds a way to escape, accompanied by two companions, in a bid to free her siblings.

Kiran Millwood Hargrave powerfully evokes not only the sisters’ close bonds but also the feelings of superiority, fascination and suspicion that the non-Roma entertain towards the Travellers. She also brings out latent sapphic feelings in certain characters which contrast with the, at times, sadistic power play displayed by others, strong stuff which fulfils the brief that publishers Bellatrix hold for “gripping, powerful and diverse YA novels by leading female voices.”

I hate to appear cavilling, but though The Deathless Girls features well delineated individuals and deals with important issues, I fear this wasn’t as satisfying a novel as I was expecting. I felt there was far too much telling than showing: we kept getting blow by blow passages in real time of how Lil felt, what Lil thought, what Lil did, and much of it was repetitious and held up the thrust of the story. In addition, although the narrative eventually started to move, the final denouement came over as anti-climactic and was for me a bit of a let-down.

But all this is not to detract from the author’s vision, itself a re-envisioning of Stoker’s tale in which his trio of ‘weird sisters’ achieve some degree of the agency they’re due and a sense of individuality. Recognising that the two who are dark, with high aquiline noses were very likely Roma and thus deserved their own story is to the author’s credit. Marginalised peoples should neither be denigrated nor condescendingly romanticised but celebrated and respected, as here.

* * * * *

Roma peoples originated in the Punjab region of northern India as a nomadic people, entering Europe through what is now Iran, Armenia and Turkey between the 8th and 10th centuries CE. Gradually spreading across the whole of Europe, they are sometimes mistakenly called gypsies because it was thought they came from Egypt, and sometimes referred to as Travellers – though that term is more often reserved for itinerant peoples from other European cultures.

The word Roma means “man” and refers to lots of different sub-groups. Though identifying themselves differently according to history, language and profession, the groups share much in terms of culture, including Rromanës, their common language, which exists in several dialects.


#WitchWeek2022

As a trained musician and the child of parents with Anglo-Indian heritage Chris Lovegrove was naturally drawn to this YA novel, narrated by a Traveller singer and authored by a writer whose family are themselves from Northern India. Part inspired by details in classic vampire fiction this story thus seemed ideal for inclusion in Witch Week’s Polychromancy series.

15 thoughts on “#WitchWeek2022 Day 2: Travellers in Wallachia

  1. Very intriguing, I’ve not yet read a book by Hargrave but have several in my sights. I love the idea of the vampire women from Dracula achieving “some degree of the agency they’re due and a sense of individuality.” Given that a woman is the real heroine of that story it’s a natural way to extend the tale, and the Roma aspect is also fascinating. Even if not entirely satisfying this sounds worth a look. Thanks Chris!

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    1. It’s definitely worth a look, Lory, and I’m keen to read some of Kiran’s other titles now!

      I was also interested to compare this story with Priya Sharma’s novella Ormeshadow which, though entirely set in an alternative Britain and imbued with atmosphere of fantastic Brontë landscapes, was also about a marginalised individual, and authored too by a writer with an Indian heritage. I reviewed it here if you missed it: https://wp.me/p2oNj1-6wB

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  2. Pingback: #WitchWeek2022 Day 2 | Lizzie Ross

    1. The concept was fascinating and there were flashes of brilliant writing, Karen, though I found it hard to completely engage – maybe it was because I knew the ultimate outcome the jeopardy didn’t always work for me. But it was important to tell this story, I’m certain.

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  3. I’ve read Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s two recent adult novels – The Mercies and The Dance Tree – but haven’t tried any of her earlier work. Sorry this one wasn’t completely satisfying, but it still seems as though you got a lot out of it. The Roma element sounds particularly interesting.

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    1. I’d already read one of your reviews, Helen, and having just read the other I think she chooses some interesting areas to explore and important issues to highlight; certainly the historical periods she goes for are varied and the women’s roles in them are sympathetically investigated.

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  4. I read Dracula many times (almost got me expelled from school) but I can’t recall the three women. Must have been too focused on the Count…’I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall over the dreadful abyss.’

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    1. I’ve only read it once, and that a long time ago, and so my only vague images of the women arise from sensationalist films like Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu remake.

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  5. I’m very intrigued by the focus on the Roma in this one, and the spin on Dracula; I haven’t read any of her books yet though have heard some good things about The Dance Tree. Will keep an eye out for both titles, even if this wasn’t completely satisfying.

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        1. I had a quick look at the Banjara Wikipedia page and see that any attempt to easily categorise them (as the British seem to have tried to do in the 19th century) is virtually impossible if not foolhardy! But I’d welcome any thoughts you had on their possible relationship with Roma.

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