Trigger warnings for discussions of suicide and Faustian bargains with eldritch beings.
Mean Girls is one of my favourite movies of all time. It was the first movie I ever purchased for myself on DVD. (If you are reading this in the future, kids, DVDs were the optical media of choice for storing video, back before Netflix just decided to store everything directly in your brain.) It’s a scathing, fun, moving look at the harmful nature of high school hierarchies. While I was largely indifferent to and ignorant of those kinds of things in my high school, it’s something that fascinates me, and that I find particularly important now that I’m a teacher.
Mortal Danger has a lot in common with Mean Girls, right down to having its own version of the Plastics. (Ann Aguirre calls them Teflons in what can only be a deliberate tip of the hat.) Instead of the new girl at school infiltrating the Plastics in order to destroy and humiliate them from within, Edie Kramer does this—with some supernatural assistance—to get revenge for what the Teflons and their boytoy entourage did to her at the end of the previous school year. Unfortunately, things don’t go exactly as planned. She starts falling for her supernatural ally, who is beholden to the Big Bad and can’t help her the way she likes. And she discovers, rather uncomfortably, that the Teflons aren’t as non-stick as everyone believes.
I get why this book has so many lukewarm reviews on Goodreads. I was really looking forward to this, because Aguirre is one half of the team behind Bronze Gods, a delightful steampunk mystery novel. My reaction to finding this in the library stacks was long the lines of, “Whoa, Ann Aguirre wrote a YA novel?” and then a furtive glance around me to make sure no one overheard that comment and was coming to wrest the book from my hands before I could check it out. (Survival of the fittest patron and whatnot.)
Alas, this does not have a promising start. The opening scene, in which Kian saves Edie from suicide by persuading her with a Faustian bargain, is exposition-heavy. I’m not sure how Aguirre might have fixed this, because we don’t know Edie yet and haven’t had any time for Aguirre to show us why she’s suicidal. But it made for a rather dull opening, and the first third of the book isn’t much better.
Edie’s first of three wishes (Aguirre calls them favours, but they are wishes and Kian is just a glammed up genie, mmkay?) is for beauty. She wants a hot bod, and while I don’t blame a teenage girl for thinking this way, I was surprised Aguirre went there. It seemed like a shallow, or at least careless, reinforcement of body image norms. But I was more than happy to give Aguirre the benefit of a doubt, so I followed Edie as she goes off for the summer to develop confidence with her new look before returning to Blackbriar Academy to lay down some AAA revenge against the Teflons.
The book takes a turn for the better as Edie’s revenge plot thickens. Specifically, she discovers that the Teflons are actually people—shocking, but a far deeper idea than I expected after the disappointing beginning. Aguirre quickly develops the Teflons into three-dimensional girls who, like Edie, are full of insecurities and personality quirks, complete with the motivation for why they treated her so horribly. So what I was worried would be a hardcore revenge fantasy turns instead into a story of how Edie starts to understand the Teflons and even befriend some of them (all but the one who isn’t, it turns out, an actual inhuman monster).
Mean Girls follows a similar trajectory as it deconstructs the Plastics trope: the problem is not the people but the social structure they yolk themselves to like a deity hungry for sacrifices. After Cady splits up the Plastics, they all discover how to channel their own interests and talents in a fulfilling way. Similarly, Edie helps to change the dynamic of the Teflons for the better. Even when it comes to Cameron, perhaps the person for whom she feels the most animosity over his actions last year, Edie discovers a twinge of sympathy after learning about how his parents are seldom around and his genuine feelings for Brittany.
This is a dimension of the conversation around bullying and adolescent power dynamics that isn’t often discussed. It goes beyond the “oh, but bullies were probably bullied too” narrative. It’s a lesson that is very important, in my opinion, for teens to learn: you can feel sympathy for people even if you don’t like them. And it’s a lesson that, let’s face it, many adults seem to have forgotten, if the polarizing and often hyperbolic tone of many of the political discussions in social media (and on TV) are any evidence. Edie never gets to the point where she might call Cameron a friend like she does with Jen or Davina, but she can still sympathize with his troubles, even as she continues to hope he’ll get taken down a peg or two. The truth is, people are complex beings, and it’s worth acknowledging all our contradictions.
Just as this part of the story gets good, however, the supernatural aspects of Mortal Danger topple it. The cover copy of this book is very clever. It insinuates a fantasy element but plays coy, so you don’t really know if there is something supernatural involved for a while (even at the beginning, Kian seems to imply it’s more science than magic). Even as Edie learns more about Wedderburn’s origins and motives, Aguirre balances that by dangling the prospect of time travel in front of us.
Edie and Kian’s struggle to free her from Wedderburn and the Game is pretty compelling. Unfortunately, it is hamstrung by a couple of problems. Firstly, Edie and Kian just don’t have any chemistry, and their romance feels utterly forced in that “well, it’s YA, so I guess the boy and girl lead need to be involved, hurr hurr” kind of way. Kian is super-creepy and stalkerish, and he keeps concealing things from Edie “for her own good.” To be fair, Aguirre lampshades this, and Kian also makes it clear he values Edie’s intelligence and initiative. Secondly, Edie learns that Wedderburn wants her to burn her last two wishes as quickly as possible … and then does nothing about it. He gloats at the end that she plays right into his hands, and he is right. Although Aguirre attempts to give Edie fortitude and the ability to stand up to the various supernatural beings who confront her, none of this seems to allow her to do much in the way of planning or going on the offensive. She just waits around for things to happen, and meanwhile continues going to school and applying for colleges like nothing strange is happening.
So Mortal Danger is a strange combination of a Mean Girls–esque revenge story and a supernatural tale of the power of belief. It can’t quite balance these two elements, however, creating instead a lopsided narrative that never seems to reach a definitive climax. If the book could find a way to make up its mind, or meld these two elements together into a more unified plot, I could see this being a very powerful story. As it is, there are highlights—but these get dashed by the dull parts in between.
What disappoints me more, however, is how Edie never confronts her underlying trauma. She has been driven to suicide by the persistent, unapologetic bullying of her peers … and after Kian appears and beautifies her, those thoughts just seem to evaporate. Now, I’m not claiming to be an expert on this at all—and Aguirre talks about how parts of Edie’s experience come from her own adolescence, so I don’t want to discount her lived experience here. But a makeover—no matter how deep—and a summer away do not automatically fix your life. So Edie is still in deep denial. This, combined with the trauma her family experiences at the end of the book, does not bode well for her psyche in the sequel.
Mortal Danger has a lot of interesting elements that recommend it. But altogether I can’t get excited: it’s supernatural, but not supernatural enough; it’s high school drama, but not high school dramatic enough; it has strange, sometimes-laudable, sometimes-awful social commentary. In general, it seems like a novel that is full of ideas but can’t choose which ones it wants to embody.