I just finished The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy, by Anne Ursu, and I think it is her best book yet (which is saying a lot!)
It’s the story of Marya, a girl growing up in the shadow of a brother who seems destined to become one of elite sorcerers who keep the country safe from a mysterious, magical, deadly plague of shadowy monsters. While he studies, she looks after the goats. She’s girl who can’t fit herself into the mold of “good girl,” as expected by society, and her parents, who she is constantly disappointing. When the sorcerers show up to test her brother to see if he has the gift for magic, she reaches peak disappointing-ness (although to be fair, goats will be goats….).
Then soon after a letter arrives, summoning Marya to Dragomir Academy, a far off school for “troubled girls” and her mother can’t get her out of the house fast enough
Dragomir Academy exists to shape troubled girls into useful, docile girls, many of whom find places doing useful work helping the sorcerers (all men). There are lots of rules, and Marya, not optimistic from the get go, is pretty certain that she doesn’t have what it takes to fold herself into following them all. And though the girls get a good education, it’s one that’s not answering all Marya’s questions.
The one true champion of her childhood was a neighbor, Madame Bandu, a master weaver who secretly taught Marya to read, and who also taught her to question and challenge.
“When you hear a story powerful people tell about themselves, and you’re wondering if it’s true,” Madame said, “ask yourself, who does the story serve?” (page 76).
And Marya asks this about the stories at the heart of the Academy, and at the heart of the patriarchal magic of her country. The answers she finds upend everything….
This is a great book, especially if you like undaunted girls using brains and courage to smash magical patriarchies. It wasn’t a very comfy book, though, because much of the story is about the school attempting to smash girls’ brains, courage, and individuality. Though it’s a girls boarding school story, this agenda means that there isn’t a huge amount of comfy girl school friendship at Dragomir Academy. One of the things that bothered me most about the school wasn’t the brainwashing, indoctrination, and shaming (though these were all troubling) but the rule that the girls weren’t allowed to talk about their pasts. It’s a rule designed to limit bonding, to limit individuality, to force the girls to fit the mold of their new life, and I hated it! (both as a person and a reader–many of the girls seemed like empty shells).
Despite the schools best efforts, though, there was one other girl in the school who shone so brightly she couldn’t be diminished, and this girl becomes Maryu’s friend and ally in mystery solving, and I loved her!
As a lover of textiles in fantasy, I also very much appreciated the role that women’s art of sewing and weaving played in the mystery and its solving. As a lover of libraries and archives, I liked exploring those of the school along with Maryu. And as someone who loves many men and boys, I liked that Maryu’s brother staged his own rebellion against the expectation of family and society, and came back into her life as an ally (it is not an anti-male book).
Towards the end of the book, I was very strongly reminded of how Ursula Le Guin, realizing she had created a magical patriarchy in her Earthsea books, set about writing new ones to smash it to pieces. At the book’s virtual launch last night, I asked Anne Ursu if Le Guin had been in her thoughts at all. Turns out another author (William Alexander) had recommended Tales from Earthsea to her during the writing of this book…..and so I was not wrong in hearing echoes that made me appreciate this new story even more!
Short answer–read the book! Ask yourself “who does the story serve?” and smash the patriarchy, magical or otherwise!
and go read Anne’s essay, “On Monsters,” at Nerdy Book Club!