Mila Flores is an outcast in her hometown of Cross Creek — she is proudly Mexican, proudly fat, and proudly Wiccan in a town that is very white and very afraid of people who don’t fit the norm. When her best friend Riley dies just a few days after her classmates June and Dayton are killed in a suspicious double suicide, Mila becomes even more of an outcast when she refuses to go along with the rest of the town in accepting Riley’s death as just another suicide. Determined to prove that Riley didn’t kill herself, Mila decides to use her magic to bring Riley back to life and bring her best friend’s killer to justice.
- Title: Undead Girl Gang
- Author: Lily Anderson
- Cover Artists: Corina Lupp, design; Michael Frost, photography
- Publisher: Razorbill
- ISBN: 0451478231
- Publication Date: May 8, 2018
- For Ages: 14+
- Category: Young Adult
- Spooky-Scary or Spooky-Fun? ☠️ Scary.
When I ran across a blurb on Twitter describing Undead Girl Gang as “Veronica Mars meets The Craft,” I rushed to Amazon and clicked Buy It Now so fast I damn near broke my phone. With one minor exception, this book lived up to the hype. It’s the snarky, hilarious, body-positive, heartbreaking, gory, spooky book I wish I’d had in junior high and high school. I’m torn between wanting to gush about my favorite parts and not wanting to spoil any of it for you, which is one of the highest compliments I could pay this book.
Before I get to the gushing, though, let me talk about that exception I mentioned: it became pretty clear who the killer was really early on in the book. I’m not going to mention the killer by name, but it may become obvious because of context clues, so I’m going to tag the next two paragraphs for spoilers. If you haven’t read the book yet and want to remain spoiler-free, please skip down below the tags and you’ll be fine.
SPOILERS AHEAD….PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK…STICK YOUR FINGERS IN YOUR EARS AND SAY “LA LA LA, I CAN’T HEAR YOU.”
I’m generally not the best armchair detective, but it became clear very quickly who the killer was. It felt like Anderson put a little too much effort into misdirection without introducing enough other characters to keep me guessing; instead of distracting me from the character she wanted me to forget about, the attempts at misdirection made me focus all of my attention on that character and realize that the murderer couldn’t possibly have been anyone else.
The lack of surprise didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the book, though, nor did it take away any of the suspense — I had to keep reading to find out why the killer had done it, and I still desperately wanted to be wrong for Mila’s sake. But now, instead of anticipating the delicious vindication of her finding her best friend’s killer, I was dreading seeing Mila’s world crash down around her all over again. That’s a testament to Anderson’s writing. She created a character that I cared about and identified with so much that the (unintended) dramatic irony was destroying me.
HERE ENDETH THE SPOILERS…YOU’RE OKAY NOW, TAKE YOUR FINGERS OUT OF YOUR EARS AND STOP SAYING “LA LA LA.”
This may not seem like a minor quibble — the book is ostensibly a murder mystery, and giving away the killer’s identity so early on seems like a fatal error, if you’ll pardon the pun. But the real heart of the book is right there in the title — it’s all about the girl gang. When Mila brings Riley back, she accidentally brings back June and Dayton too, setting off a compelling story about four girls dealing with serious issues: friendship, betrayal, misogyny, body issues, racism, classism, mortality, religion…the list goes on. Anderson creates unique, compelling female characters who — even with zombies running around — reflect a realistic view of high school life (complete with substantial characters other than your typical thin, blonde WASPs) and prove that high school girls are people with complex inner lives who should be taken just as seriously as their older and/or male counterparts.
What keeps you turning the pages isn’t the whodunit but the relationships between these girls as they evolve and grow, as mean girls Dayton (Riley’s childhood bully) and June (a white girl who had a history of racism towards Mila) become less bitchy and myopic and form friendships of sorts with both Riley and Mila. Anderson doesn’t play this like a redemption arc or a “give snobs and racists a chance” sermon, but she does show that all people are flawed and complicated and that most people have some good in them if they can stop being ignorant or self-absorbed long enough to let the good come out.
Even more complex and heartbreaking is the relationship between Mila and Riley. They’ve only been apart for a few days, but the emotional distance Mila feels when she brings Riley back from the grave is vast and immediate. I remember that pain from high school when you realize that you’ve lost a friendship and you’re never getting it back again, at least not in the same way that you had it before, and you can’t figure out why or how it happened. Reading the passages where Mila reflects on the confusing new dynamic with Riley, I’m right back in my high school cafeteria feeling that same ache in my chest.
Anderson’s ability to make Mila’s grief so relatable is astonishing. Given that this is a black magic zombie murder mystery, I don’t think it comes as much of a surprise that not all of the characters make it out alive. What is surprising is how deftly Anderson transmutes Mila’s highly specific and improbable brand of grief into a more universal adolescent experience, as pain and wistfulness for a familiar but now lost past clash with a sense of newfound strength and hope as she faces a wide-open future.
Undead Girl Gang is the spooky, intersectional teen girl drama of my dreams. Though Anderson can’t sustain the mystery for very long, she still crafts a riveting narrative, and her characters are so intriguing and relatable that she never loses the reader’s attention for a second. In Mila, she creates an exciting new heroine — one who faces a world filled with grief, loss, and fear and manages to confront it with wit, strength, some powerful magic, and a hell of a lot of attitude.
I want to live inside this book. I give it 4.5 out of 5 coffins.