June 19, 2023

Review: To Shape a Dragon's Breath

To Shape a Dragon's Breath To Shape a Dragon's Breath by Moniquill Blackgoose
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I first started reading this, I thought it would end up similar to Naomi Novik's Temeraire series. That is basically "alternate history Napoleon era British/France wars with dragons." The further I got into this book, however, the more I realized that this alternate history and world is better thought out and detailed. Most importantly, the worldview of this book--it is written from the viewpoint of the colonized instead of the colonizer--turns this alternate history on its head, and imparts some important lessons in racism, discrimination and white supremacy that are incredibly germane to our society today.

But that always has been the result of the best fantasy and science fiction: the fictional worlds we are reading about, no matter how well constructed they are, reflect our own society back to us. In this case, the author, an Indigenous person and enrolled member of the Seaconke Wampanoag Tribe, doesn't have many good things to say about the white people in her society--or ours.

This alternate 1842 takes place in an America never settled by the Pilgrims, French or British, and where the Revolutionary War never took place. Instead, the Norse, Danes and Swedes conquered much of Europe and colonized North America, in the bloody Viking way:

It was in that manner that folk of Norsland, Swedeland and Daneland took possession of many of the southlands of the old world: Finnland and western Russland, Anglesland and Frankland, Tyskland and Polland. All were gained through bloody and glorious conquest.

With this, the influence of Christianity on the American colonies is greatly reduced: the Christian religion gets scarcely a mention at all, as the only gods talked about are Norse. The colonizers are called "Anglish," but that's only because of the language spoken, I think, not because they're from Britain. Unfortunately, this doesn't disabuse them of their conviction that their way of life is superior nor dissuade them from their need to "civilize" the North American "savages":

"All reputable scholars are in agreement about the inherent nature of the species of humanity natural to the shores of the new world. They wholly lack ambition and the desire for personal or social betterment. They are very like bees or wasps: content in their small industries if left undisturbed, but violently resentful to any interference, even that which directly benefits them. They are naturally short-tempered, violent, stubborn, and vengeful--ruled in physical and mental capacities by an excess of bile. They lack the natural industry, intelligence, and desire for improvement that the gods in their wisdom have deigned to impart upon peoples of the white northlands. It is only right and just that the enlightened and advanced species of mankind should supplant those that are backward and primitive."

(It's amazing how the English--or in this case, the Anglish--can mask such vile concepts with such pretty mannered phrases.)

Into this North America on the verge of a steampunk-ish alternate industrial revolution, the final divergence from our world is introduced: the existence of dragons. In the case of our protagonist Anequs, it is a Nampeshiwe, an Indigenous breed with feathers and antlers that lays an egg on Slipstone Island and flies away, leaving fifteen-year-old Anequs to discover it and bring it back to her island of Masquapaug. The egg hatches and the dragonet, Kasaqua, bonds with Anequs, and changes the trajectory of her life forever. Because to the colonizing Anglish, dragons have to be registered and closely monitored, and the fact that Anequs now has an unbreakable bond with one requires her traveling to the mainland and enrolling in a dragon academy: Kuiper's Academy of Natural Philosophy and Skiltakraft (the author's terms for science and magic respectively). There Anequs must learn to manage Kasaqua's chemical, transmuting dragon fire, or the young dragon will be put to death (she may be anyway, as many Anglish don't believe a "nackie"--the Anglish slur term for Indigenous peoples, equivalent to our N-word--should possess a dragon).

This book details the culture clash of nackie and Anglish, and Anequs's attempts to navigate the impossible situation she finds herself in. Anequs is a marvelous character, fierce and loyal, kind and stubborn, determined not to lose herself and her culture to the Anglish. She knows she has a delicate and narrow tightrope to walk, but she means to learn how to shape Kasaqua's breath and return to her people. The friends she makes along the way include Theod Knecht, a young Indigenous man from a neighboring island who survived an Anglish massacre after coal was discovered on his island and the inhabitants resisted the Anglish taking their lands from them, and who was taught to hate his own people, which Anequs helps him to unlearn; Marta, a fellow student at Kuiper Academy who embodies and believes in the ridiculousness of the Anglish "polite society"; Sander Jensen, another student who is autistic and bonds with Anequs over "penniks", this world's dime novels; and Liberty, a young Black woman indentured at the Acadamy, who Anequs becomes romantically interested in.

(This book also deftly avoids the dreaded cliche YA love triangle. Anequs is unashamedly bisexual, and her people are open and accepting of both LBGT individuals and polyamory. There is no "choosing" here between Liberty and Theod, who Anequs is also interested in. Indeed, by book's end, Anequs states she intends to court both of them, and possibly marry them as well.)

As you can see, there is a lot going on here, which is why the book is over 500 pages. And I haven't even mentioned the steampunk-ish aspects, and the magic system, which is based more on chemistry: a dragon's breath can literally change a substance into another substance, and "skiltakraft" is built on the idea of "skiltas," magical sigils that give that breath a direction and a mandate as to what is changed and how that change is accomplished. This is tied into Anequs' people and their history and dances in an ingenious way which ends up being a major turning point of the book.

This is just a marvelous story all the way around, and I loved every bit of it. It is also a book that only an Indigenous author could have written, which is why it is so very important that these writers are given a chance to publish their unique viewpoints. Please, pick this up so we can get more wonderful stories like these.

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