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Book Review: Dragons and smashing colonialism in "To Shape a Dragon's Breath"

Set in a world touched by magic and dragons, Anequs is sent to a colonizer-run dragon academy after stumbling upon a dragon egg in her remote village of Masquapaug. Her people revere the found dragon and hope this discovery will bring forth an age of abundance and success for the island.

Yet, the Anglish colonizers believe dragons are meant to be conquered and used for economic and military means, which Anequs and her dragon Kasaqua do not subscribe to. Faced with attending boarding school or Kasaqua's death, Anequs enrolls in the dragon academy only to discover there are more barriers for her to train her dragon, from the institution itself to her peers and Anglish society.

With Angeline Boulley's "Firekeeper's Daughter" emerging as the breakout novel of Indigenous representation in YA, Blackgoose's story takes notes and goes even further. Anequs' life experiences and passion for her culture shine in this book without forcing our protagonist to give up the pieces of herself to the colonizer. Not only an Indigenous representation, but Blackgoose also incorporates autistic and neurodivergent representation with well-researched care and understanding. Honestly, I was impressed with the accuracy and kindness of these character depictions and hope other authors will note Blackgoose's loving care for these groups.

Blackgoose's vivid worldbuilding draws on 19th-century America, with everything touched by magic. The detailed descriptions and expansive features of Blackgoose's novel were the novel's highlight, creating a truly believable and wondrous display of the power of a well-thought-out world. My only issue with the worldbuilding was the magic system–although creative. Unlike anything I've ever read before, the system was sometimes confusing. Honestly, I left this book not knowing how the magic and shaping of the dragon's breath work.

The social commentary on 1800s America and the treatment of Indigenous peoples was spot-on, and Blackgoose did not shy away from the horrors inflicted upon Indigenous groups during that time. With very few YA novels centered around the Indigenous experience, "To Shape a Dragon's Breath" hits the target during discussions on colonialism and assimilation.

Despite the authentic depictions and sharp commentary, it felt as if Blackgoose was trying to cover all the bases of social issues in America. From sexism, racism, classism, indentured servitude, and homophobia to ableism, "To Shape a Dragon's Breath" tackles way too many issues without diving into any of them.

For every step forward this novel takes, it takes 2 steps back in terms of the reading experience. I am all for explaining certain aspects of worldbuilding, especially if it's a vital piece of the puzzle. Still, Blackgoose spends dozens of pages explaining fantasy geometry and chemistry like a professor who lectures nonstop. These long tangents––coupled with minimal tension and too much commentary on every societal issue––made "To Shape a Dragon's Breath" a tiresome read with no payoff. Lastly, the anti-climactic ending felt as if Blackgoose got lost on the way to the conclusion and had no idea how to end the novel after the preceding events.

While a brilliant addition to the YA genre with ground-breaking representation and commentary, "To Shape a Dragon's Breath" fell flat and couldn't seem to land on its feet by the end. I wanted to like "To Shape a Dragon's Breath." but, ultimately, the messiness and minimal tension throughout the story was tiresome and left me wanting a much more polished version of the novel.

This ARC was provided by Del Rey and Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review. Follow @bergreadstoomuch on Instagram for more!

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