It’s a big day for Marya Lupu’s family because sorcerers from the Council for the Magical Protection of Illyria are finally visiting Marya’s home to see if her elder brother, 13-year-old Luka, has magic. If he does, Luka will become an apprentice sorcerer destined to protect the realm of Illyria from the terrible Dread, and his family will be loaded with honours, wealth and a fine estate, leaving behind their humble village home. Unfortunately thanks to Mayra and Luka’s on-going feud and a contrary goat, everything goes wrong. Luka fails the inspection, their parents are shamed, and Marya is banished to Dragomir Academy, a reform school for troubled girls.
Despite often getting into trouble, Marya doesn’t feel troubled in the sense of being difficult and in need of fixing, but the Council for the Betterment of Illyrian Youth, and sadly Marya’s parents, do. Dragomir Academy is far in the north, and Marya will be sent there to learn discipline, guidance and purpose. Marya, however, believes it is more likely she will be fed as bait to the giants that once terrorised the northern mountains. While the school does offer Marya education, something not available to girls generally in Illyria, how will Marya survive in a school determined to wipe out every trace of individuality, forcing them to conform as servile citizens of the realm? Especially when she is drawn into the mystery of the founders of Dragomir Academy and can’t help investigating the link to the curse of Mountain Madness…
The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy is an entertaining and enjoyable read. Marya makes a great heroine. Impulsive and quick-tempered, she is also brave, persevering and caring. I found her a convincing twelve-year-old girl, and I really liked how the author gives depth and complexity to her relationship with Luka. The girls of Rose Hall also are likeable, and I enjoyed their back stories. Dragomir Academy is determined to condition and break the girls, telling them to forget their past, and if one rule infraction occurs, the whole class is punished. Despite this authoritarian approach, the girls manage to ally together and forge friendships, and I enjoyed seeing how these played out.
I also really like Marya’s patient investigation into the Dragomir family, and their connection to Mountain Madness. I absolutely love the Dread, the type of monster it is and its origins, Brilliantly imaginative and mortally dangerous, it wins my vote as the best element of the story (closely followed by the subversive weavers).
Much has been made of the book’s feminist theme. The story didn’t seem to me to be smashing the patriarchy, but exposing inherent sexism in their society (with obvious parallels to the real world) using Illyrian’s value of boys (who could become sorcerers and save the people from the Dread) versus how girls were viewed (to serve the sorcerers). More than that, I see the story’s theme as an indictment of power, and the abuse of it. After all, most boys didn’t develop magic abilities, but those that did were desperate to hang on to it. Sending ‘troubled girls’ for an education seemed a bizarre solution, as Dragomir staff wanted to give the girls an education, even if it was to serve the realm. Why did that not apply to all girls? The tactics used to control the girls in Dragomir academy seemed to me to be based on controlling people, rather than being specifically anti-female. I imagine trainee sorcerers would not necessarily fare a lot better. I guess the point of the story is that such injustices damage all of society (very literally in this story).
The logic used to decide which girls went to Dragomir Academy was not clear to me, nor why Marya was sent there (I can’t be more specific without giving spoilers), and I expected the end to go a different direction, but these didn’t spoil the story for me. I highly recommend it and award it eight out of ten diamonds.
The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy is a finalist in Cybils Elementary & Middle Grade Speculative Fiction.