The opening chapter of Hannah Abigail Clarke’s The Scapegracers is a little rough. It starts with a group of girls gathering in the middle of a party to do some magic and freak everyone out. Then the narrator breaks off to do more magic with a girl she’s only just met, and the feeling that this is one of those YA books full of unrealistic teens more stupid than human was palpable. But that’s not the case! In The Scapegracers the teens are clever, compassionate, caring, and…also so fucking stupid.
Teens can be tricky to write. Too smart and they don’t feel real. Too stupid and they feel obnoxious. Sometimes they’re both but it’s so wildly inconsistent that we pivot right back to them not feeling like real characters. Take for example the teen rebel in Colony and or the entire cast of Harry Potter in book six. But author Hannah Abigail Clarke gets teens. The girls at the center of Scapegracers feel so much like them, in fact, I found myself flashing back to high school.
Sideways Pike is the narrator, and you know she’s a teen because she actually encourages people to call her Sideways. Raised by her two uncles, she’s a misfit going to a small-town high school where the richest kids live in big houses just off the main road and where moonlight is a more reliable source of light at night than streetlamps. Before the book starts, a clique of three of the most popular girls in school invite her to a party because they heard she can do magic and they think that would be neat to do for a crowd.
While popular girls in the majority of pop culture vacillate between aloof with a heart of gold or aloof and horrible, these three girls—Jing, Daisy, and Yates—are more like the girls I remember going to school with. They’re just weird. Because teenagers are weird! They’re more than the narrow little roles we often confine them to in stories, and the most confident kids are usually the ones most comfortable being openly weird as hell, regardless of their popularity. As things unfold, the three girls realize their playtime with magic was legit and have no problem telling people they’re witches or making it clear they think magic is cool. When Sideways is nearly killed by witch hunters drawn in by the spells the four girls cast, the three popular kids are happy to help her stop some bad guys. Because why not?
The plot of the book revolves around their search for the witch hunters and trying to find a solution to dealing with them. There are competing covens, books full of magic, a few sentient urns of demon ash, and a great big sapphic betrayal that promises to be explored in the following two books of this three-part series. But The Scapegracers is also about Sideways pursuing her own history—largely lost when her mother died, and about recognizing that it’s OK to have friends and OK to look beyond the shallow trappings of high school stereotypes.
High school friendships are often intense, but fleeting. You’ll be spending every day with a new friend for a month and then never talk to them again. Or you’ll be sure you and another kid are destined to be best friends through college and beyond and later find they don’t even merit a follow on Facebook. The sheer intensity and speed of high school friendships are one of those things I feel like I didn’t remember until I read The Scapegracers. Then suddenly I was remembering every clique I forged and forgot over those four years. Only we didn’t have nearly as many covens.
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