by E.E. Knight
Series: Dragoneer Academy #1
Also in this series: Daughter of the Serpentine
Publisher: Ace Books
Publication Date: November 5, 2019
Genres: Young Adult, Fantasy
In the first book in an exciting and charming new coming-of-age fantasy series from the author of the Age of Fire series, an impoverished girl enters into a military order of dragonriders, but her path won't be as easy or as straightforward as she expected.
Fourteen-year-old Ileth grew up in an orphanage, and thanks to her stutter was never thought to be destined for much beyond kitchen work and cleaning. But she's dreamed of serving with the dragons ever since a childhood meeting with a glittering silver dragon and its female dragoneer. For years she waits, and as soon as she is old enough to join, Ileth runs away to become a novice dragoneer at the ancient human-dragon fortress of the Serpentine.
While most of her fellow apprentices are from rich and influential families, Ileth must fight for her place in the world, even if it includes a duel with her boss at the fish-gutting table. She's then sent off to the dragon-dancers after a foolish kiss with a famously named boy and given charge of a sickly old dragon with a mysterious past. But she finds those trials were nothing when she has to take the place of a dead dragoneer and care for his imprisoned dragon in enemy lands. . . .
Content warnings: View Spoiler »sexual assault (hinted at and minor on-page), shaming of victim of sexual assault, misogyny, suicidal ideation, violence (person is burned alive, dragons threaten to eat people), death (including references to death in childbirth, death of children, and death via a volcano eruption), ableism (MC has stutter and is generally made fun of and thought to be stupid because of it), bullying « Hide Spoiler
The cover is what first caught my eye on the library’s shelf (hey, remember when people actually went to libraries??) and then the blurb sold me. It’s a coming of age story about a plucky young girl and her hopes of becoming a dragon rider.
“A bad start is still a start, after all.”
At fourteen, Ileth runs away from the orphanage she grew up in and sets off, on her own, to the Dragoneer Academy at the Serpentine. Things don’t go smoothly for Ileth from the start when’s she late to the academy and refused entry. Even after she manages to secure a place as a novice, she’s the poor underdog who’s constantly getting into scrapes. The book follows the next two years as she gradually makes a place for herself.
Ileth has a stutter, which generally results in her being teased, thought stupid, or seen as a reflection of her mother’s or her own lack of moral fiber. Also, while women are allowed to enter the academy, it’s assumed that many, especially the well-born ones, are just there as something to do before they get married. Ileth faces a lot of misogyny, including being blamed for nearly being sexually assaulted, and even more so when she becomes a dragon dancer, which involves lots of athletic movements in what’s considered very skimpy clothing (also, please keep in mind she’s sixteen or younger for the entire book). She’s not afraid of hard work, however, and through that and a bit of luck, she usually finds a way to come out on top in the end.
“Never underestimate your native powers to reason a matter out,” he continued. “I know humans use writing and tutors and so on to gather and pass on knowledge. That’s useful. I am fond of books myself. Yet learning doesn’t stick until you’ve tried to work things out according to your own lights.”
Besides Ileth’s determination to make a place for herself at the Serpentine, there’s not much of an overarching storyline, and at times it did feel like it meandered a bit. I honestly didn’t care, though, as I thoroughly enjoyed all of it, detours and all. It’s very much a slice-of-life perspective as opposed to flitting from action scene to action scene. It works, in its way, because the world building is intricate and spectacular, from the various countries and their political leanings (the Republic Ileth lives in felt styled after post-revolution France) to dragon culture. There’s a varied cast of characters, from Ileth’s early rival Santeel (a rich girl who everyone expects is just there to marry well) to Octavia and her dragon dancers to Rapoto, a sort of love interest.
And then, of course, there are the dragons! The Lodger is my favorite, a kindly old dragon who, rather than mocking Ileth for her lack of knowledge or stutter, comments that human languages trip up his tongue frequently as well. It does take a bit for the dragons to show up, and I would’ve loved to see more of them, but at the same point, it makes sense that someone that fair down in the hierarchy of the Serpentine wouldn’t spend much time around them.
The book is funny, often in a very understated way. I especially enjoyed the way the Baron and Hael Dun Huss conversed, and how Ileth, by the end of the book, was capable of giving as good as she got, stutter or no. At times, though, I couldn’t tell if Ileth was being deliberately obtuse or if she really didn’t understand what was going on. There was some general crude teen humor as well, and the sort of pranks you’d expect from a bunch of poorly supervised teenagers.
“They told us the Galantines don’t use many women. They don’t think much of women, believe they can’t keep secrets, rot like that.”
Ha! Ileth thought. She had trouble keeping track of her secrets, she had so many.”
There are hints that Ileth is, perhaps, not telling the entire truth. While she grew up in an orphanage, she’s careful not to say she’s an orphan, and there’s definitely some question about her parentage. There’s also a bit of controversy over her name – it’s the name of an executed queen – and the fact that the governor of the province she used to live in seems to be looking for her. It’s not much, but it definitely makes you wonder what’s going on.
“Beginnings, endings, they’re kind of the same thing, aren’t they?”
Overall, I enjoyed this book and I’m very much looking forward to the next one!