Moniquill Blackgoose’s 2023 To Shape a Dragon’s Breath is The First Book of Nampeshiweisit.
The author has imagined a world in which dragon-riding Norse thrived at the expense of other cultures. Every land had its dragons, but so far as the Masquapaug islanders know, their dragons, the Nampeshiwe, died out centuries ago. Anequs’ encounter with a broody Nampeshiwe and her decision to collect the egg it leaves behind transforms the girl’s life and quite possibly dooms her people.
Centuries ago the Anglish brought the first cataclysmic pandemics, which were followed by brutal conquest. The Skraelings of New Markesland were deemed to be nithings, to be exploited or killed as the whim struck. Having taken almost all of New Markesland for themselves, the Anglish now graciously permit the small communities of survivors to huddle in their small refuges, to be held under treaty for perpetuity or until Anglish discover something they want on so-called “nackie” land.
Dragons being the weapons of mass destruction of this Norse-dominated world, there is not the slightest chance that Anequs and her newly hatched dragon Kasaqua will be left to their own devices. But it’s also true that Kasaqua is a very real danger in the hands of an untrained companion, as the dragon’s breath can melt stone. If the Anglish do not descend on the island in paranoid fury, Kasaqua might well inadvertently incinerate Anequs’ fellow Masquisit.
There are but two alternatives: Kasaqua can be euthanized as a feral dragon or Anequs can enter Kuiper’s Academy of Natural Philosophy and Skiltakraft to learn Anglish ways of dragon management. A reluctant Anequs opts for the path that spares the dragon while providing her with the skills she will need for her life with the dragon.
Anequs is only the second indigenous person and the very first Masquisit girl to enter Kuiper’s1. It is clear from the beginning that the school has no interest in accommodating non-Anglish cultures. The entire purpose of the venture is to shape Anequs to fit Anglish norms. The staff is divided: are the indigenes capable of learning civilized ways? or is the endeavor doomed to failure? Many of the staff believe that she will fail.
But there is a third alternative. If Aengus isn’t driven from the school and refuses to fail, she could be murdered. And perhaps the rest of the Masquisit with her.
A word about dates: this is set in the 1800s. Or rather, it is set in an 1800s. I can’t work out how the calendar correlates to our calendar. Given the total absence of Christianity in this setting, it is unlikely that the Anglish year one would correspond to the Christian year one. Best not to think about it.
As one might expect, there is a considerable friction between Masquisit cultural values and those of the Anglish. The Anglish are relentlessly patriarchal, homophobic, and violent, whereas the Masquisit are not. As well, there is a fundamental difference between how the Masquisit see the relationship between human and dragon and how the Anglish do. Masquisit see it as a partnership between equals, whereas Anglish view dragons as domestic animals, to be disposed of as convenient.
I expected that a novel about an indigenous girl attending dragon-riding school would have considerable mundane-in-wizarding-school familiarity, but was surprised by the author’s predilection for Uncleftish Beholding. Rather than use modern-day English terms, with the unspoken understanding that the text is being translated into the vernacular, Blackgoose creates a vocabulary that reflects the history of this Norse-dominated world2.
This is also a world in which technology and science have been shaped by access to dragon-fire. Transformations impossible to mundane technology are possible. Their technology reminds me of the early 20th century, with the addition of flying WMDs.
Is this world better or worse than ours? One might expect it to be worse (mean Vikings, dragons). But there’s an argument to be made that it’s better: the Anglish may have thralls but thralldom is less oppressive than chattel slavery because it is less permanent and not heritable. Yet again, from the perspective of the Masquisit, the differences between how they are treated by Anglish and how they would have been treated in our world are negligible. Land is appropriated and natives who object are killed or imprisoned on one pretext or another.
Of course, cunning world-crafting won’t hold reader attention3 if the plot and characters don’t hold up. Blackgoose does not disappoint. Readers will care about Anequs, her friends, and her people. The plot works whether read as a complete work or as an enticement to read the complete series. Given the novel’s length and my issues maintaining focus, I expected a two-day read. Instead I was enthralled enough to finish the work in a single sitting.
Apple Books’ lack of a search function defeated me.
1: The other indigenous student at the school was Theod, a Naquisit orphan whose parents were murdered when the Anglish took over Naquipaug Island. After discovering a coal seam. If the land had been worthless, the Naquisit could have kept it.
2: Well, Norse-dominated in the Norse-dominated bits. Most of humanity presumably lives in Asia. How different Chinese and Indian history is from that which we know is unclear.
If you think dragon-riding Vikings sound like a bad idea, imagine dragon-riding Mongols.
3: Well, the worldbuilding captured my attention. Good worldbuilding is one of my hobbies. (See my shelf of otherwise sub-par Poul Anderson books.) I understand that other people feel differently and I celebrate their right to have obviously wrong tastes.