Review: To Shape a Dragon’s Breath by Moniquill BlackgooseTo Shape a Dragon's Breath by Moniquill Blackgoose
Series: Nampeshiweisit #1
Published by Random House Worlds on May 9, 2023
Genres: Fantasy, Indigenous Literature, Young Adult
Pages: 528
Format: Audiobook
Source: Purchased

“An early contender for the best fantasy novel of 2023.”—The Washington Post
“A very entertaining and fun read, full of loveable characters and intricate, original worldbuilding.”—NPR

The remote island of Masquapaug has not seen a dragon in many generations—until fifteen-year-old Anequs finds a dragon’s egg and bonds with its hatchling. Her people are delighted, for all remember the tales of the days when dragons lived among them and danced away the storms of autumn, enabling the people to thrive. To them, Anequs is revered as Nampeshiweisit—a person in a unique relationship with a dragon.

Unfortunately for Anequs, the Anglish conquerors of her land have different opinions. They have a very specific idea of how a dragon should be raised, and who should be doing the raising—and Anequs does not meet any of their requirements. Only with great reluctance do they allow Anequs to enroll in a proper Anglish dragon school on the mainland. If she cannot succeed there, her dragon will be killed.

For a girl with no formal schooling, a non-Anglish upbringing, and a very different understanding of the history of her land, challenges abound—both socially and academically. But Anequs is smart, determined, and resolved to learn what she needs to help her dragon, even if it means teaching herself. The one thing she refuses to do, however, is become the meek Anglish miss that everyone expects.

Anequs and her dragon may be coming of age, but they’re also coming to power, and that brings an important realization: the world needs changing—and they might just be the ones to do it.

Moniquill Blackgoose has burst onto the scene with her debut novel To Shape a Dragon’s Breath, a fresh and reflective YA fantasy novel.

Anequs lives on the island of Masquapaug, surrounded by the warmth of her family and her people. Masquapaug remains (relatively) unharassed by the colonial powers of the Anglish, but nearby Indigenous tribes have been devastated by state violence in the name of resource extraction. Luckily, their people don’t have anything the Anglish want…until Anequs discovers a dragon egg. 

When the dragon Kasaqua hatches, she chooses Anequs as Nampeshiweisit, a person belonging to a dragon. Their bond includes a psychic connection and the potential that Anequs may one day learn to shape Kasaqua’s breath, the source of incredible power. But with no one alive on Masquapaug who still remembers the old stories, Anequs must learn what she can by leaving home to attend an Anglish boarding school for prospective dragoneers. That’s right, folks: we’re going to magic school.

The Anglish have many species of dragons, each with their own specialties, and they have a deep-seated suspicion and fear of Indigenous people being “in control” of their own dragons. Anequs can’t imagine a person wanting to control a dragon, let alone believing that they actually could – this is but one of many cultural mismatches between her perspective and that of the Anglish. 

Even among strangers, Anequs finds strength and pride in who she is: a young woman from Masquapaug - and Nampeshiweisit.

Anequs is subject to many racist tropes that colonizers have employed to disparage Indigenous folks, each one carefully and methodically unpacked and challenged by Blackgoose. While Anequs tries her best to obey the rules at the academy, she ultimately refuses to make herself small in the name of Anglish sensibilities. The friends and allies that she makes along the way must accept her for who she is – a young woman from Masquapaug and a Nampeshiweisit. 

The narrative structure is a straightforward linear plot with a single timeline, but clever additions prevent it from feeling stale.  Each time Anequs makes a friend from another culture, that character tells her a story about their people in a separate chapter. These vignettes highlight the thematic importance of both cultural stories and the art of storytelling itself while also building out the world. Another fun detail I noticed is that each chapter title combined with the ones after it crafts a story. How cool is that?! 

To Shape a Dragon’s Breath does have some weaknesses – namely, the plot. It’s easy to predict how events will unfold for Anequs and her friends, especially if you know anything about colonial history in North America. The relative lack of surprises didn’t hamper my enjoyment of the story, but it was noticeable. This first book in the series sets the stage for further adventures and I fully anticipate that Blackgoose has something unexpected planned for the sequel.

While reading, I alternated between the print and audiobook formats. If pressed to choose a preference, I’d say go for the audio version. The narrator, Charley Flyte, delivers a smooth and rhythmic performance that highlights the beautiful simplicity of Blackgoose’s writing. Highly recommended.