2020’s The Scapegracers is the first volume in Hannah Abigail Clarke’s projected Scapegracers series.
Offered forty dollars to spice up a pre-Halloween party with magic, social outcast Eloise “Sideways” Pike takes what turns out to be the first step towards forming her own coven. Sideways’ magic is no sleight of hand. It is very real.
Real magic always has consequences.
The first consequence is that Sideways is absorbed into the cool kid cabal of Jing Gao, Lila Yates, and Daisy Brink. The trio has ruled their high school for years. Now Sideways, previously of interest to her fellow high schoolers as a target for homophobic abuse, is part of that circle. In turn, the trio join Sideways’ world of magic, working a genuine spell at the party.
The spell requires five witches. Sideways, Jing, Yates, and Daisy make four. Sideways exploits the meet-cute potential of the occasion and invites an alluring stranger named Madeline into the ritual, then spends as much of party as she remembers chatting up Madeline. This goes better than planned right up to the moment Sideways demonstrates more magic, after which … sudden darkness.
When Sideways regains consciousness, the basement walls are covered with inscriptions (which vanish later). There are dead deer in the dry swimming pool, along with a living but traumatized Yates. It’s natural to suspect that Sideways is to blame for the weirdness. That is not the case.
Another practitioner attended the party: blandly good-looking “frat boy Chett” went berserk for reasons that are unclear and performed the ritual that killed the deer.
Sideways and her friends aren’t going to let some rando upset Yates; they decide to curse the boy. The spell bounces.
Sideways is not unique. She is, however, self-taught, which means she is ignorant of the wider world of magic. For example, there’s a whole community of men dedicated to finding witches and stripping them of their power. While Sideways wasn’t the reason one of them attended the party, she’s on their radar now.
I’ve been wanting to read this for months purely due to the cover art.
The book contains an extended rant about the boxes into which society wants to cram teenaged girls:
“I guess my point is that teenage girls aren’t supposed to be powerful, you know? Everybody hates teenage girls. They hate our bodies and hate us if we want to change them. They hate the things we’re supposed to like but hate it when we like other things even more, because that means we’re ruining their things. We’re somehow this great corrupting influence, even though we’ve barely got legal agency of our own.”
For example: in a lot of books, the cool trio would definitely have turned out to be malevolent. Who ever heard of popular girls who weren’t also mean girls?
This book doesn’t have good guys and bad guys so much as it has in-groups and out-groups. Well, that’s not entirely true — the witch hunters are pretty unambiguously bad — but the characters tend to map “friend” onto “good guy” and consider their own actions as inherently righteous. This strategy turns out to be somewhat flawed: for example, not everyone you think of as a friend is actually on your side. Nor is every buzzkill authority figure an antagonist. Although they might be!
Poor sorting of people into assets, threats, and neutrals, does, however, set up a massive cliff-hanger at the end. Or perhaps the author sees it as setting up the series to come. The next book isn’t due out until 2021 (if there is a 2021) so don’t expect instant gratification.
Sideways may be a genuine witch, but she’s also a teenager who has just discovered that the kids she wants to hang out with want to hang out with her. You might expect a laser focus on tracking down the jerk at the party after the curse bounces. Nope. Sideways is more interested in this new “social life” thing and the potential of a relationship with Madeline . It’s almost as though teenagers have trouble distinguishing between what’s important and what’s important to them . Thank goodness that’s something people grow out of as they age. [Editor’s note: don’t you need a sarcasm marker here?]
The pacing is a bit odd — I think because it follows what matters to Sideways — but the narrative kept my interest, and the author’s prose is engaging. I just want to know how the cliff-hanger works out.
1: Which is a lot more about anticipation than anything else.
2: Odd: this is the second book I’ve read in a month in which teenage magic users discover a threat but do not make dealing with it priority one. Mooncakes, by Wendy Xu and Suzanne Walker, explores similar territory (if in a very different way). At least Sideways and her pals don’t have a habit of turning their backs on known threats.