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To Shape A Dragon's Breath coverTo Shape a Dragon’s Breath by Moniquill Blackgoose was for me a highly anticipated read that lived up to all of my expectations. A poetically lyrical and defiantly blunt coming-of-age story, it is an excellent entry in the dragon-rider academy genre while also managing to convey a singular perspective that I’ve almost never come across before. It is a book that invites one’s interaction, that delivers clever worldbuilding and excellent characters, that sets up Blackgoose’s next book and her series’ wider conflict, and very much reflects conversations that we’ve been having and continue to have when it comes to Indigenous peoples in North America. Not for nothing do we read in its pages that “the shapeless medicine of a dragon’s breath is change.”

I knew this novel would be a unique and compelling story as soon as I opened up my ARC. It distinguishes itself right from the chapter titles in the table of contents—not only the specific chapter titles, and how they correspond to each of their chapters, but how the table of contents tells a story in and of itself. There is a dry sort of humour present that I loved. Each chapter title is a sentence, and works as a summary of Anequs’s journey in the book—a simple yet impactful introduction to the story that will follow.

However, I cannot speak of this book without mentioning my own frame of reference and perspective as I read it. As a Canadian, I feel as if many people, depending on which part of what province they live in, have begun to speak of and acknowledge Indigenous history and the continuing existence and current struggles of Indigenous peoples today—at least to a certain extent. Land acknowledgments before school speeches, book events, hockey matches, etc. are now much more common. Truth and Reconciliation has been part of the current government’s platform for years, regardless of whether anything has been done regarding the Calls to Action created by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. There is some greater awareness regarding missing and murdered Indigenous women, and the horrors and the toll of residential schools—including the ongoing efforts to locate and exhume the mass graves known to exist at those former residential schools, such as that in which the remains of 215 children were discovered in 2021 at the Kamloops Indian Residential School.

I was lucky that, growing up, I was taught some actual history, including having residential school survivors speak at school assemblies. This means I am somewhat familiar with some of this book’s main themes, discussions, and setting. Not fully knowledgeable; there is much I need to learn. Not familiar in the sense that this is my family history; I am not Indigenous. It is very likely I am not familiar with many complexities that Indigenous readers would be able to tease out, nor do I know much about Blackgoose’s own specific cultural background and traditions, and whether or not some of the events mentioned in this book were based on specific incidents of violence that occurred in our world. I also grew up in an environment that largely glossed over Canada’s existence as a settler-colonial state, or painted it in fancy words as a historical artefact. This environment reinforced the sort of ignorance that readers will encounter in the hegemonic Anglish culture of To Shape a Dragon’s Breath. It is one that still exists in many people today: it perpetuates half-truths and refuses to properly correct the unknown biases students may have.

Still, because of my passing familiarity, I felt that I was able to contextualize the characters—especially the journey Anequs goes through, as well as her firm mindset of not wanting to assimilate into Anglish society at all. I was also able to contextualize some of the themes that Blackgoose makes a point to repeatedly highlight, such as the wish of Niquiat, the brother of Anequs, to go to the Anglish so he can learn the discipline of tatkraft and help his people embrace modernity (but on their terms, and in ways that benefit them). Much of the ignorance and perspectives and arguments that Anequs encounters at the school and from her classmates, as well as in Anglish society at large, were very familiar, including how Anequs argued against these assumptions or asserted herself.

All this also made for a strange feeling: I’m either used to knowing a story’s context rather well, or, if it is based on cultures and world events or referencing real-world aspects that I do not know very well, learning alongside the characters. In this case, I understood some of what Blackgoose was attempting and succeeding at doing, in a partial way that I’m very much not used to. This strange feeling accompanied me as I read and finished the story, and it certainly shaped how I reacted to certain of its plot points or interpreted particular characters, as well as some of my musings on the next book’s direction and themes.

The first book of the Nampeshiweisit, To Shape a Dragon’s Breath follows sixteen-year-old Anequs from the island of Masquapaug, whose life changes when dragons return. While the colonizers who settled the “new lands” have their own dragons, the Nampeshiwe of Masquisit—the dragons of Anequs’s people—have not been seen in generations. The story starts with Anequs seeing a fully-grown Nampeshiwe when gathering mussels. The next day, she finds that dragon’s egg and brings it back to the meetinghouse. Once the dragon, whose name is Kasaqua, is hatched, she chooses Anequs to be Nampeshiweisit—that is, to be her human companion. Thus, the course of her life—and that of her people—fundamentally changes. For reasons of colonizer bureaucracy as well as the lost knowledge of the Nampeshiwe and of how to be Nampeshiweisit, Anequs goes to Kuiper’s Academy of Natural Philosophy and Skiltakraft so that she may learn how to shape her dragon’s breath.

In terms of structure, save for the first few chapters that cover Anequs discovering the egg and Kasaqua’s hatching, the book follows Anequs’s first academic year. It focuses on the classes she takes, the structures, seasons, and celebrations of the Anglish, and her adventures there. The novel concludes with the end of the academic year, in which friends have been made, knowledge has been learned, and longer-term implications and plot threads have been sown.

The worldbuilding is clever. The reader is first introduced to a few words, such as telegrams and pennik novels, and then to the specific steampunk mechanisms of the world. I wasn’t sure what time period or setting this book was inhabiting when I began reading; with some of the word choices, I wouldn’t have been surprised if it was more akin to our present day, and I rather enjoyed figuring it out as I went along. In fact, the larger worldbuilding is based on an alternate 1800s steampunk universe in which the colonizers—and the dominant European culture/society in the “Old World”—are Vikings, rather than the Spanish, French, or British, to name a few.

This means that the world of the Anglish is recognizable but skewed. Masquapaug is part of New Anglesland. The words of many things are different: a census is called folkscoring, and the magical and scientific disciplines are known as skiltakraft, minglinglore, erelore, wordlore, and al-jabr. The system of government is quite different, as explained to Anequs, who is largely unaware of the larger complexities of Anglish culture:

The high king rules over all the holds in a kingdom—that’s Yngvarr Silvertooth just now, high king of Lindmarden. Each hold is presided over by a jarl. We’re in Vaster Hold, which includes the thedes of Vastergot, Varmarden, Skaldstead, Estervall, and Catchnet—along with their outlands. Holds are divided into thedes, each of which is presided over by a thane. Vastergot’s thane is Arjan Stafn. Ivar’s father.

It was fascinating for me to explore this aspect of Blackgoose’s worldbuilding, to slowly tease out its meanings and parallels to our own world, and to see how this system of government and history and technology shaped the story. I am also partial to stories with dragons, whether it’s more of a dragon-rider book such as the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik or the Empyrean series by Rebecca Yarros, or a world in which dragons are simply another species, such as in the Memoirs of Lady Trent by Marie Brennan. I love seeing how the existence of dragons alters a world, and I absolutely love seeing how different authors explore this principle.

Blackgoose’s focus is more on the technology-powering alchemy of a dragon’s breath, which I found to be a new and interesting approach. Especially with some of the knowledge and twists revealed in this book, such as the differences between how the Anglish raise dragons and use their breath versus how Anequs’s culture once did, I was on the edge of my seat and I’m very interested to see how this plays out in the next book. However, while Blackgoose’s choice to focus on this aspect of a dragon’s breath, and how its magic is necessary for this world’s crude automobiles and automaton-horse-drawn-carriages (as well as the coal needed to fuel this technology) is interesting, how it was presented in the book was also one of the parts I liked the least.

Once I started familiarizing myself with this novel’s larger world, and realizing what some of the words meant, I began to understand its science more. And I realized while reading To Shape a Dragon’s Breath that I enjoy fantasy stories—especially ones set in an alternate past—that are just a bit more … different. Where the technology and words the characters use feel radically unfamiliar, such as in Cold Magic by Kate Elliott, or where the science of alchemy is a tiny bit more complex. Here, I found it hilarious that it took me several chapters to realize that al-jabr meant algebra—but disappointing when I did. And when the discipline of skiltakraft was properly introduced to Anequs, I had the unnerving realization that her professor was simply teaching the periodic table of elements with different names; I know just enough basic chemistry to follow along somewhat (though sadly not enough to be competent in high school stoichiometry, for example), and I simply found the overlaps jarring. Perhaps I’ve not read enough books in the wider steampunk genre, or perhaps it is simply how the magic and technology and the mechanics of skiltakraft were presented here, but unfortunately, regardless of the why, I simply didn’t enjoy this aspect as much as the alchemy I’ve found in other stories. Take, for example, Fullmetal Alchemist, an anime I absolutely love and whose manga I am currently reading, in which alchemy is a science that uses drawn transmutation circles and the concept of equivalent exchange also exists but simply feels different.

Nevertheless, I did find that how the Anglish practice of skiltakraft was presented—and the differences between Anglish dragoneering and being Nampeshiweist—in fact tied back neatly into the book’s larger themes. As readers find out, our main character’s grandmother was likely correct in her summation of what Anglish dragoneering teaching is worth (that is, not a lot): “‘I knew that the Anglish couldn’t teach you to be a Nampeshiweisit,’ Grandma said with a crack of dry laughter. ‘I knew it! Daughter of my daughter, you’re going to teach us all how to dance with dragons again.’”

These main themes of colonialism, of resistance—in particular to settler colonialism—and of navigating a foreign and harsh society, of trying to learn and grow while remaining true to oneself and one’s culture, is emphasized throughout. But there’s one other aspect to the novel that I especially appreciated: its key thread of storytelling. Much of the book touches upon storytelling as a form of knowledge and a method for passing knowledge from one generation to another. Blackgoose makes a point of having various characters of different backgrounds tell stories to others, which acts as a clever worldbuilding tool in terms of revealing culture and belief systems, but also reveals much about the character telling them. I appreciated how these different stories shared similar aspects, such as the importance of three—there’s a motif of three quests or encounters, for example—as well as callbacks to how different characters tell these stories, and what this can tell us. There was a powerful symmetry between these instances that I appreciated more with each subsequent one.

Each of these stories is a chapter, titled in turn “This is the story that Anequs told,” “This is the story that Strida told,” “This is the story that Liberty told,” and “This is the story that Lisbet told.” The end of the previous chapter sets up the story, always in a clever character-revealing way, as well as with a reverence for the power of their tellings. For example, near the beginning of the book, as Anequs brings back the egg that will become Kasaqua to her people’s meetinghouse, her story is preceded by this:

I left tobacco and juniper burning in the hollow where the egg had been. I took off my calico blouse and made a sling from it, walking back down the mound bare-chested, like an old woman or a little girl. The morning air was cold on my skin, but that didn’t seem important. While I walked, I told the egg a story. The only story that seemed to be worthy of telling.

I appreciatively noted these sorts of nods to the power of books and stories and fandom as a way to bridge the gap between people. They complement the novel’s larger focus on storytelling and the importance of stories as culture and as a way to share knowledge. The writing is in this way simultaneously straightforward and poetic throughout, with unique character descriptions and sentences describing the characters’ emotions or the setting, such as: “It meant that steam rose from beneath her folded wings if she stood still long enough, just as it billowed out from her mouth and mine as we breathed,” or “There were maple seeds falling with every breath of wind through autumn leaves, spinning in tight circles like fluttering insects.” A dry wit and humour, as well as genuine compassion, is imbued in every page and exponentially increased my enjoyment of the story.

This broad empathy extends into the deliberate intersectionality that Blackgoose weaves into the novel. She not only talks about social issues, from the destruction of Indigenous peoples and land by the Anglish for greed and to “prove themselves superior,” to how—as with residential schools and other assimilationist programs in real life—Indigenous children are taken from their families, forced to assimilate to the colonizer culture, and are often taught to hate themselves and their own people. She also includes disability and neurodivergence and queerness and the lives and cultures of other people. For instance, Liberty’s family fled from a country with the institution of slavery embedded within it, and through her character both Anequs and the reader are introduced to the existence and struggles of Black people in this world, whether they be immigrants or have lived in New Anglesland for generations. Many other cultures, such as Arabic and Middle-Eastern ones, are also on the page, present in the words and disciplines used (Kindah coffee, al-jabr) as well as in several characters such as Zhina, who is the chief apprentice of the co-op where Anqus’s brother also works and with whom she is in a romantic relationship. This sense of deliberately and diversely fleshing out the world and the characters is still unfortunately rare to see in fantasy and science fiction, and it was well threaded in this particular story.

For example, one of the novel’s characters, Sander, is visibly and deliberately autistic, and another is Ulfar, a professor at the academy who designed his own wheelchair after a paralyzing accident. While many alternate-universe fantasy books often have neurodivergent and disabled characters, neurodivergence specifically is usually just hinted at, or can be interpreted differently by many people. In this case, with the caveat that autism is a spectrum and everyone’s experiences are different and unique, Sander was not coded as autistic; he simply was. There were no vague characteristics or references to behaviours and thought patterns which readers can glean an idea from close reading here. From his struggles growing up in an ableist society and with an ableist mother, to needing stim toys in order to focus and calm down, to preferring to speak via writing on a tablet rigged specifically for his needs—it was all on the page and discussed frankly, even if that society didn’t have the words and knowledge that we may have. His behaviours, how his mind worked, his likes and dislikes … all felt genuine and specific. I was also glad that he was able to find a supportive and non-judgmental community, from his friends to his sister to some of the staff at the academy. Similarly, one of the first “steampunk” technologies the readers are introduced to in this novel is Professor Ulfar’s wheelchair:

He nodded as Frau Kuiper and I entered, and I heard a clockwork sound. The man emerged from behind the desk, but he didn’t stand up to do so. The chair he was sitting on was made of polished brass, and stood on six multi-jointed legs that splayed out to either side, like a crab’s. The arms of the chair formed a wide arc, and I could see an array of little switches and buttons within easy reach of his hands. Even as I watched, his hand moved deftly over them, fingers flicking in an obviously practiced rhythm. The chair walked like an ant, moving three of its legs at a time.

The celebration of authentic lived experiences extends further in the novel. For instance, many of its characters are queer, and the Masquisit are a people among whom polyamory is perfectly fine, and for whom being trans, gender-fluid, sapphic, achillean, and Two-Spirit is normal and respected. While Anglish society is repressive and homophobic, queer people still exist within it and navigate this environment. While Anequs does not agree with the ways of the Anglish, she does understand and respect that difficult choices must be made by individuals in these circumstances. I’m very excited to see how queerness specifically is presented in the second book, with several queer relationships mentioned or hinted at that I am eager to see develop or become a greater part of the story.

In spotlighting all these characters, To Shape A Dragon’s Breath joins the discussions I’ve seen over the years within the pages of books and on social media about allyship and representation, and how people from a dominant group or society can help those in more marginalized positions. The arc of one such character, Marta, is only beginning by the end of this opening volume—and thus we cannot be too clear on where things will end up long-term—but in reading her pages I kept thinking about the difference between allyship and friendship, put so succinctly in books such as Wings of Ebony by J. Elle. Being someone’s friend is always nice and important, but perhaps it’s more important to stand beside others in solidarity. In recognizing how current systems of power can benefit oneself, and deciding what to do about it when you realize how damaging and corrupt these systems are, what do you do? How do you react? Blackgoose has created space to go in that direction, or to explore this theme as a whole in more specific detail, and I’m excited to see where that could go.

Still, these questions are not fully addressed in this book, especially with the Anglish characters—indeed, the only part I found frustrating with To Shape a Dragon’s Breath was how it portrays many of its Anglish characters in what I felt was a strange and inconsistent way. Several times, through how Anequs interpreted others and how the text described an Anglish character’s actions and demeanour, I came away from a chapter with an idea of that other character in mind, only for it to be completely destroyed by Anequs’s internal monologue in the next chapter. Unlike how she thinks about her family, or even characters such as Liberty, how Anequs thought about Marta or the other Anglish drastically changed from chapter to chapter. For example, Anequs reflects on an encounter with some of Marta’s societal peers in a very dismissive fashion, whereas I had interpreted her reaction to the encounter as it unfolded in a much less negative way. Perhaps it was in part due to my own biases and interpretations, but this happened several times with several characters, and I found it jarring and annoying each time. I would’ve liked for her internal narration in these parts to be more consistent, or at least to explain a bit more how she came to her conclusions in further chapters. Nevertheless, this was a minor aspect and didn’t diminish my enjoyment and appreciation of the overall book—because so much is happening here, and it is of such value.

In her essay “Land as Pedagogy: Nishnaabeg Intelligence and Rebellious Transformation,” the Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg writer Leanne Betasamosake Simpson discusses a story entitled “Kwezens makes a lovely discovery.” While the entire essay is thought-provoking and worth a read, the article proper starts with this:

This spring, while tapping a stand of maple trees, I remembered that this is one of my favorite stories. It’s one of my favorites because nothing violent happens in it. At every turn, Kwezens is met with very basic, core Nishnaabeg values—love, compassion and understanding. She centres her day around her own freedom and joy.

Simpson goes on:

Things are different for this Kwezens. She has already spent seven years immersed in a nest of Nishnaabeg intelligence. She already understands the importance of observation and learning from our animal teachers, when she watches the squirrel so carefully and then mimics its actions. She understands embodiment and conceptual thought, when she then takes this observation and applies it to her own situation—by making a cut in the maple tree and using a cedar shunt. She relies upon her own creativity to invent new technology. She patiently waits for the sap to collect. She takes that sap home and shares it with her family. Her mother, in turn, meets her daughter’s discovery with love and trust. Kwezens watches as her mama uses the sap to boil the deer meat for supper. When she tastes the deer, the sweetness, she learns about reduction, and when her mama and her go to clean the pot, she learns about how sap can be boiled into sugar. Kwezens then takes her Elders to the tree already trusting that she will be believed, that her knowledge and discovery will be cherished, and that she will be heard.

And then she concludes:

It is critical to avoid the assumption that this story takes place in pre-colonial times because Nishnaabeg conceptualizations of time and space present an on-going intervention to linear thinking—this story happens in various incarnations all over our territory every year in March when the Nishnaabeg return to the sugar bush. Kwezen’s presence (and the web of kinship relations that she is composed of) is complicated by her fraught relationality to the tenacity of settler colonialism and her very presence simultaneously shatters the disappearance of Indigenous women and girls from settler consciousness. She also escapes the rigidity of colonial gender binaries by having influence and agency within her family, while physically disrupting settler colonial commodification and ownership of the land through the implicit assumption that she is supposed to be there. Her existence as a hub of intelligent Nishnaabeg relationality may be threatened by land theft, environmental contamination, residential schools and state-run education, and colonial gender violence, but Kwezens is there anyway, making maple sugar as she always has done, in a loving, compassionate reality, propelling us to re-create the circumstances within which this story and Nishnaabewin takes place. Propelling us to rebel against the permanence of settler colonial reality and not just “dream alternative realities” but to create them, on the ground in the physical world, in spite of being occupied. If we accept colonial permanence, then our rebellion can only take place within settler colonial thought and reality; we become too willing to sacrifice the context that creates and produces cultural workers like Kwezen.

I first encountered this essay in a second-year undergrad course, Introduction to Indigenous Literature, which enabled me to have initial conversations about Indigenous writers and the futures and pasts they imagine and various ways of contextualizing the past, amongst other things. I could not stop referring back to that reading as I watched Anequs learn and counter Anglish bigotry and rigidness, as we readers found out more about her people’s culture and ways. From the very beginning, she is believed when she tells her family that she saw a Nampeshiwe. Apart from an initial probe—are you playing a prank—no one doubts her or demands proof. There is no hesitation, or moment where it is uncertain if the main character’s family will understand and choose to be in solidarity with them, as there is in so many other countless stories. While she does learn much at the academy, both in terms of understanding the Anglish so that she can counter them—and, in my opinion, needing to learn the basics of skiltakraft to understand the knowledge her ancestors once had—she remains grounded in her own culture and her people’s ways. To Shape a Dragon’s Breath is a coming-of-age story that is very much worth the hype and the acclaim.

Safia (she/her) is an editor, book reviewer, and aspiring writer of speculative fiction. She loves chonky books, redemption stories, tea, and ballet. She lives in Canada, and her work has appeared in The Mitre, Canada’s oldest student-run literary journal. You can find her blog here, and other important links here.

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