Monday, October 4, 2021

The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy by Anne Ursu

The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy by Anne Ursu
Format:  E-ARC 
Publisher:  Walden Pond Books
Number of Pages:  432 
Publishing:  October 12th, 2021
Source:  Review copy provided by Sabrina Kenoun from SparkPress via Netgalley

Opening lines:  "There were few women pictured in the great tapestries of Illyria - besides the witches, of course."

Marya Lupu is from the small village of Banat within the greater kingdom of Illyria.  Within this realm, male sorcerers are coveted for their ability to wield magic and protect the kingdom from the Dread.  Every boy has the potential to be a sorcerer, but only a few pass the magical skills test.  Marya's parents have always assumed that their son, Luka was going to be a great sorcerer.  He is admired by everyone in their village, and her parents have placed all of their hopes on his success, while Marya is seen as not being able to do anything right.  On the day of Luka's test, Marya does the inexcusable, she ruins her beautiful new dress and causes their goat to interrupt Luka's proceeding.  While trying to rectify things, she also does the unfathomable,  insults the sorcerer performing the test.  Marya's parents are devastated, and not long after Luka receives a letter informing him that he will not be invited to become a sorcerer.  Then a few days later a letter appears, this time the family is told that Marya has been invited to attend Dragomir Academy, a school dedicated to reforming troubled girls.  Marya is placed at Rose Hall with four other girls and per the arms long list of rules she received on the way to the Academy, the girls are not supposed to talk about their past lives, instead they are to focus on "comporting themselves as ladies" and perhaps one day they can be placed on the estate of a sorcerer.  As the days go by, Marya becomes suspicious about the founder of Dragomir Academy's daughter.  Why has all traces of her disappeared from the tapestries of the family hanging on the walls and why did her parents create the school for troubled girls?  What is it that makes them so troubled?  When a startling new illness begins to take hold of the other students causing them to spend time in the infirmary, Marya is encouraged to further explore the secrets of Dragomir Academy.

I've had the pleasure of reading a few of Ursu's other books, Breadcrumbs, The Lost Girl, and The Real Boy and have always enjoyed her writing and characters.  She's written a few empowering girl stories and her latest book, The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy is such a book.  Ursu focuses on the power imbalances or inequities that exist between various genders and explores this in the way that the boys of Illyria, like Luka are meant to grow up and become sorcerers, revered for their strength in battling the Dread, while some of the girls, like Marya are troubled and need to be reeducated into proper ladies.

At the beginning of the story, Marya doesn't appear too upset about her lot in life, males and females each have their own roles to play.  Marya and Luka have a grudge that dominates the first quarter of the story where they're focused on getting even with each other by pulling pranks meant to one up the other.  Marya puts honey in Luka's shorts and he ruins her dress.  Marya grumbles about how her parents see her as being unladylike, unable to do anything right, or how she essentially has to stay out of her dad's way, while her mom dotes on Luka, and is way stricter on her.  Throughout the story, the girls thoughts are manipulated in a way that causes them to doubt their own worth, at first believing that they're troubled and can never do anything right.  It's really sad how their parents disown or allow them to be taken to this Academy.  Marya is treated so unfairly and you can't help wanting to give her a hug, or send her another letter from her next door neighbor,  Madame Bandu, who was such a delight by the way.  I loved how she was the one who taught Marya how to read and write, offers to apprentice her as a master weaver, and keeps telling her that she did nothing wrong.  She's such a support to Marya and her kindness just radiates in the story.  Now Luka was interesting.  At first he was sort of stuck up, nose in the air kinda guy.  When he didn't get asked to be a sorcerer he doesn't seem too surprised, almost relieved.  Partially because his parents have put so much pressure on him to be the great sorcerer and bring pride to their family, and partially because of the amount of time/energy he put into preparing for his new role.  Once Marya is sent away, he changes for the better and I couldn't help wondering why?  Like why didn't he spill the beans about Marya knowing how to read?  I liked how Marya described him as having many sides, "the gifted, dutiful, cruel and one of fear," and maybe he's meant to represent that people are more complex than you think.  Lastly, I enjoyed how the story is meant to question "who does the story serve?"  and "who benefits?"  For the girls of Rose Hall, is was through their being educated at the school and daring to question what they were being told from the men around them.  I'd pair this with Miss Ellicott's School for Magically Minded by Sage Blackwood.  

** A huge thank you to Sabrian Kenoun from SparkPress for the E-ARC via Netgalley  **         

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