Book Review: Burning Girls: A Tor.Com Original, Veronica Schanoes (2013)

April 4th, 2014 12:31 pm by Kelly Garbato

Beautifully Conceived and Written

five out of five stars

(Caution: minor spoilers below!)

Born in Bialystok, Poland at the turn of the century, Deborah is possessed of the power like her bubbe. Deborah is a witch, and spends her summers in training with grandmother Hannah: learning to assist in childbirth, cure common ailments, terminate unwanted pregnancies, craft blessings and talismans, and drive away demons. But Deborah’s magic is little help against the growing tide of antisemitism sweeping through Europe; and when the Cossacks lay waste to Hannah’s village, killing Deborah’s beloved grandmother and mentor, it becomes clear to her family that they must escape to America. America, where “they don’t let you burn.”

While the family – mother, father, and sister Shayna – work overtime to save enough money for the trip, Deborah discovers a horrifying secret. There, among grandmother’s sparse belongings, is a mysterious contract: “The ink seemed to be made of blood and vomit. A stench like cowshit rose off the page. My stomach churned every time I unfolded the paper.” When a demon tries to steal her newborn brother Yeshua, Deborah realizes that her grandmother did the unthinkable: traded her daughter’s next child in exchange for the family’s safe passage to America. Though Deborah succeeds in destroying the contract, it’s at great personal cost; and while Deborah and Shayna eventually make it to the New World, they’re ultimately unable to escape the lilit’s clutches.

Burning Girls is a beautiful and captivating story from start to finish. Schanoes draws from multiple genres – dark fantasy, magical realism, fairy tales, historical fiction – seamlessly weaving these threads together to create a bewitching tapestry filled with horror and heartbreak. (The Białystok pogrom, during which between 81 and 88 people were murdered and another 80 injured, occurred in June 1906; and the Asch building was the site of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.) This could easily be a full-length novel (frankly, I’d love to see it on the big screen!) but works beautifully as a novella.

The story’s title, which is referenced throughout the plot and in myriad ways (is Deborah not a girl on fire when she uses the power of the evil eye to set bubbe’s contract aflame?), sets the stage for a rather shocking climax. Schanoes also plays with language in interesting ways; take, for example, Deborah’s abrupt transition from spending her days in friend Yetta’s sweetshop to slaving away in a NYC sweatshop.

Whether you’re interested in fantasy or feminism, worker’s rights or the persecution of Jews throughout history, you owe it to yourself to check out Burning Girls. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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