2022’s The Scratch Daughters is the second of H. A. Clarke’s Scapegracers series.
Armed with a rudimentary but effective command of magic and a severe intolerance for male misbehavior, the Scapegracers — Daisy, Yates, Jing, and series protagonist Sidewise Pike — encourage the men of rustic Sycamore County to master their worst impulses. If the men behave outrageously enough to attract the coven’s attention, they will find themselves cursed.
Given the dismal quality of men in their backwoods community, the teens would no doubt have enough to occupy them until they can graduate and escape Sycamore County. There is however a pressing matter that demands their immediate attention: Sideways’ missing soul.
Or rather, her stolen soul.
Madeline Kline first stole Sideways’ heart. Then Madeline Kline stole Sideways’ soul. Soulless witches do not prosper. The only reason that Sideways has remained vertical and animated is that she is possessed by hard-working book demon Mr. Scratch. Even with Mr. Scratch’s relentless efforts on her behalf, Sideways’ existence is a pale shadow of life.
Madeline did not act out of casual malice but out of desperation. Before Madeline stole Sideways’ soul, she lost her own soul to the Chantry boys. The Chantry family is one of Sycamore County’s oldest, richest, and most powerful families. The Chantry men achieved that status by preying on witches, stealing souls to fuel the magic that enriches the Chantry clan.
Therefore, the Scapegracers must achieve two intertwined goals:
- Find Madeline and retrieve Sideways’ purloined soul.
- Find some way to deal with the Chantrys. Personal protection would be good, but eliminating the threat entirely would be even better.
Finding Madeline may not be that hard. Madeline’s possession of Sideways’ soul means that there is a constant link between Madeline and Sideways. While this means Sideways is frequently distracted by Madeline’s emotions, it also means Madeline is never beyond Sideways’ ken.
The Chantry boys are a greater challenge. The clan has lifetimes of experience dealing with witches, while the Scapegracers are all novices. However, the Chantry family is as abusive to family members who fail to live up to its narrow standards as it is towards witches. This internal conflict may provide the Scapegracers with the advantage they desperately need.
Some readers may point out that Madeline is herself a victim and that if stealing Sideways soul is potentially lethal for Sideways, then taking it back must logically be just as potentially lethal for Madeline. Both issues are acknowledged and addressed in the narrative[i].
Other readers might comment that there don’t seem to be very many heterosexual women in this volume (even the teen who dates lots of boys does it for reasons other than actual attraction). Well, no doubt there’s a degree of social affinity at play here, but one has to admit the straight men of Sycamore County do not make a good case for themselves.
There is a tendency in American modern fantasy for its characters, having come into possession of some extraordinary power, to give themselves a pass on obeying the law. The Scapegracers are no exception to this trend. However, their vigilantism is to a great extent excused by the fact that Sycamore County law is biased, corrupt, and beyond reform[ii]. And as readers will see, there are lines beyond which the Scapegracers will not go.
The novel paints a Sycamore County that is the sort of place that aspiring cosmopolitans would flee, rather than the sort of place they would plausibly choose to settle. It’s not just the Chantrys. Various events in the book suggest that the men of Sycamore Country share the Chantrys’ misogyny. To put it another way, Sycamore County is a Bad Place, like the settings of such novels as The Twisted Ones and Salem’s Lot[iii], but it is for sociological rather than supernatural reasons. There are parallels with the unnamed nation featured in The Beehive.
All of that is fascinating on plot, political, and world-building levels but novels live and die on the strength of their characters. Happily for me (and readers who purchase the novel once it becomes available), the characters are as engaging as they were in the first novel, which is to say “very.”
For some reason I got the sense that this was going to be the finale of a duology. In fact, while this novel has a satisfactory closure, there is more than ample room for further volumes. Apparently one does not simply walk into Mordor[iv]solve entrenched patriarchy in just two volumes.
[i] What isn’t really addressed is the degree to which magic is widespread in the US and the world in general. Is Sycamore County unusually magic rich? Or is the world overrun with powerful witches and sorcerers who somehow escape public notice?
[ii] The Chantry Boys sidestep “special, therefore above the law” on the technicality that within Sycamore County, they are the law. In fact, they are so well socially positioned that despite being Team Evil as far as the Scapegracers are concerned, the Chantrys still get invites to parties because it Just Wouldn’t Be Done to exclude them.
[iii] Bad Places also abound in episodes of CBC Radio’s Vanishing Point, a radio series that viewed towns outside Toronto with profound (and if the stories are a guide, well-earned) suspicion.
[iv] Frodo and Samwise beg to differ.