Full disclosure: I received this book for free because I won a Twitter contest run by Courtney Summers. But wait! If you want to send me free books, you don’t have to get me to retweet anything at all. You can just do it! Contact me for more details.
Fuller disclosure: Michelle Krys is from Thunder Bay, my hometown and place of residence, so that does give her bonus points.
Fullest disclosure: (I actually have nothing else to add, but I felt like going all the way to the superlative.)
Anyway, I suppose I should, as they say on Monty Python, GET ON WITH IT….
I’m not sure what I was expecting with Dead Girls Society. Outside of where they intersect with science fiction and fantasy, YA thrillers have not been something I’ve reach much of lately. So while I’m used to YA books that deal with some dark and deep issues, the level of unhinged shit that goes down, especially during the climax, is a pleasant surprise here.
Hope Callahan suffers from cystic fibrosis, and it is bad enough that she has been out of school for a few months now. She receives a mysterious, anonymous invitation from the eponymous society. The goal: participate in—and win—a series of dangerous challenges to win $100 000. Though Krys is Canadian, the book takes place in the States (Louisiana, it seems), so that much money would seriously help Hope’s family pay for her medical treatment. But Hope can’t tell anyone else about this game, and it is dangerous enough that it might very well take her life.
Meanwhile, as if she doesn’t have enough problems, she’s developing feelings for Ethan, her best friend, and trying to navigate a return to school. One of the richest, most popular guys is putting the moves on her, and she kind of likes it—but Hope can’t trust anyone, because she soon learns that the Dead Girls Society has representatives and minions everywhere.
I found the main plot very exciting and tightly paced. Krys is frustratingly good at ending her chapters on cliffhangers, and I kept having to put the book down to do boring real life stuff just when I wanted to find out whether Hope was going to live or die! While I can’t speak to the verisimilitude of her portrayal of a teen with CF, I will say that I think Krys does a good job balancing the risks of Hope’s condition with portraying her as a vital, vibrant person. Hope is not an invalid, neither is she an athlete. Her illness does not define her, but it informs her relationships with other people—particularly her family.
Hope’s mother could easily have been a caricature of an over-protective parent, so concerned for her child that she forces her to live in a bubble. Indeed, there are shades of this at the very beginning—but Krys is quick to dispel these. In particular, I love how Hope reasons with her mother on multiple occasions, swaying her mom through the application of logical arguments. It’s kind of refreshing to see teen drama that isn’t so over-the-top. (And if you’re looking for that, don’t worry, it shows up later.)
Krys consistently increases the stakes with each “challenge” and the occasional reprisals that follow. What starts as an intriguing mystery transforms gradually into a literal life-or-death confrontation. Hope is torn between playing the game—whether out of a desire for the money or simply fear of reprisal if she stops—and trying to outsmart/undermine the Society. I loved watching her try to befriend and enlist the other girls involved. At first the other girls seem to fall into stock character types, or, as Krys lampshades it: “the Bad Girl, the Smart Girl, the Rich Girl, the Sporty Girl, and the Sick Girl”. Yet she quickly belies these labels, fleshing out each of the other characters in turn. I don’t want to spoil the story by going into details, but it’s nice to see each of them become more three-dimensional. In particular, I loved Hope’s interactions with Farrah and the way they help her slowly slot back into high school society. I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to try to get back into “regular life” and socializing after being confined to one’s house for so long.
Now, there are subplots here that do very little for me, as an ace and no-longer-so-young adult. The “falling for my best friend” plot is pretty old, and Krys doesn’t do much new with that. Likewise, morally ambiguous rich guy falling for main character is another oldie-and-not-always-goodie. I appreciate that Krys exploits that moral ambiguity of Tucker’s for maximum effect, doubling down on the doubt by first undermining Ethan’s revelation of the criminal record and then pulling the rug out from beneath Hope when she least expects it.
Similarly, some of these subplots are also very rushed, or at least underdeveloped. Again, when it comes to the Hope/Tucker relationship, he makes his move the very same day she is back at school and things accelerate … quickly. There is little chance to build tension or for Hope to process what’s happening. (Then again, hormones? I guess?) Ethan’s conflicting relationship with another girl lives mostly in the background, the girlfriend coming to the fore only once or twice before being put on a bus. Fortunately, the main plot comes with enough tension to carry the rest of the story forward like an out-of-control train on greased-up tracks.
There’s more to Dead Girls Society than just thriller material too—there is commentary, both subtle and more obvious, about class and sexuality and gender. Krys contrasts Hope’s working-class family and its struggles to get by with the effortless glamour of Farrah, Tucker, and Nikki’s families—and the political consternation that hangs in the balance when these teenagers fuck up. Some stories, in their eagerness to critique the rich/poor divide, portray one side or the other in one dimension; this is where I find many dystopian YA stories let me down. Krys humanizes everyone, allowing us to understand—if not actually sympathize, because Tucker is a huge dick—why they act the way they do. I appreciate how Krys works these issues into the novel even though they aren’t a central feature.
Going to have to temper my enthusiasm slightly because of that ending, which almost has enough sugar mixed into it to dull the bitter taste of the rest of the book. This is a matter of personal taste, I guess. If you like “happy endings” where the protagonist gets all that she wants and maybe more, I guess you’ll enjoy this one. I prefer endings that are more ambiguous, endings that reflect the true uncertainty of life, endings that offer up the suggestion of hope (pun intended) but never the promise. While Krys does try to introduce an element of mystery right at the end (is there going to be a sequel? I’d read a sequel!), overall I feel like she wraps the story up in too much of a big bow before handing it to the reader.
I was decidedly lukewarm about Krys’ debut, Hexed, and consequently didn’t check out its sequel (even though I said I would, but hey, terrible person and all that). With Dead Girls Society I wanted to give her another try (and not just because she’s local—though that doesn’t hurt), and I don’t regret it. For all that it’s a smart and tightly-plotted thriller, it also doesn’t skimp on character development, and that is a balance I can get behind. Also, just realized I kind of bookended my year with Michelle Krys books. I should try doing that with more authors!