Review: 'The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy,' by Anne Ursu

By Trisha Collopy

MIDDLE-GRADE: Minneapolis author Anne Ursu tackles questions of privilege and power in this feminist fairy tale.

"The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy" by Anne Ursu; Walden Pond Press (432 pages, $16.99)

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In the kingdom of Illyria, boys are groomed from a young age to be sorcerers — one of the land's most powerful roles — while girls are taught to conform to a rigid, secondary role.

The sorcerers protect the kingdom from threats, especially from a formless enemy known as the Dread, which attacks whole villages, sucking the life out of everything in its path.

In the world of Anne Ursu's new fantasy "The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy," 12-year-old Marya Lupu has tried to conform. She's tried to stay in the background, to shrink her curiosity and tendency to speak out when things are unjust. While her mother polices Marya's "wild" tendencies, her older brother Luka receives the education and attention she craves.

Her sole respite is her time with her neighbor, Madame Bandu, a weaver who sees a future for Marya beyond housework.

When the Council for the Magical Protection of Illyria comes to test Luka for his magical abilities, a series of unfortunate events leads Marya to embarrass the family in front of some of Illyria's most powerful men. Luka fails the test, dashing the family's hopes for social advancement, and not long after, Marya receives a letter ordering her to report to a school for troubled girls.

At Dragomir Academy, tucked in a remote, mountainous area at the edge of Illyria, students are told to leave their "troubled" past behind and remake themselves into girls who can be trusted to work for the kingdom's sorcerers. Those who don't follow the rules bring down harsh punishments — and others disappear for weeks at a time with a mysterious sickness, only to return a shadow of themselves.

Despite this rigid structure, Marya slowly begins to develop friendships, and her curiosity leads her to research the history of the kingdom, its past wars with the witches of neighboring Kel and clues to the identity of the Dread.

Madame Bandu, too, helps Marya, letting her in on a secret code of resistance by female weavers and advising her to ask, "Who does the story serve?" when she's told to accept things that don't add up.

When the Dread appears near Dragomir Academy, Marya must marshal her resources, the secrets she's begun to unravel and the relationships she's built, to save those around her and find a path toward a better future for the kingdom and its girls.

"It's difficult to be a girl in Illyria," the headmaster says as Marya arrives at Dragomir Academy. "There are not many places for you. It is easy to feel as if you are not valued."

Minneapolis author Ursu lays out the social levers that help one group (men) concentrate and hold power and the ways that those a step below them (women) often are the enforcers of such unequal systems.

But it's her characters who make the biggest impact. Marya and her fellow students and teachers at Dragomir Academy lingered with me, long after the story concluded.


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