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I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher in order to write this review.
If Marya’s brother Luka is destined to make their parents proud, then Marya is destined to disappoint them. She’s good at it—although to be fair, sometimes Luka helps her along. Marya was prepared to be the perfect sister and daughter when the sorcerer came to evaluate Luka for magic potential. She was even going to enjoy wearing the gorgeous gown that her mother bought her. It really wasn’t her fault that Luka stuffed it into the dirty chicken coop (even if it was in retaliation for her putting honey in his underwear), and it really wasn’t entirely her fault that the goat got out of its pen and charged the sorcerer (because she wouldn’t have left the pen open if she hadn’t been looking for her dress), and okay, maybe she should have known better than to shout at the sorcerer when his loud spells were frightening the goat further … but no matter what happened on that disastrous visit, Marya knows she doesn’t deserve to be sent to an Academy for Troubled Girls.
Unfortunately, the king’s council doesn’t see it that way. And so the next day, Marya must say goodbye to her dreams of becoming an apprentice to the local tapestry weaver and head out to boarding school. At Dragomir Academy, Marya hears echoes of the things she’s been hearing her whole life: girls should be quiet and orderly, helpers to the sorcerers so that they can fight the magical Dread that seems to keep spreading across the kingdom. But some things are new. For example, the teachers actually encourage the girls to read—a skill Marya had to learn in secret from her friend the weaver. And Dragomir castle seems to be filled with secrets. Like what happened to the Dragomirs’ daughter Nadia, who apparently disappeared as a teenager? And what causes the mysterious hallucinations that all the girls experience at some point—and how (and where) are they cured? It isn’t until Marya stumbles upon a secret code in the Countess Dragomir’s embroidery that she realizes these mysteries may be connected. And the truth points to a grave danger for all of the troubled girls–and everyone in the kingdom.
My new favorite Anne Ursu book! Ursu tackles systemic sexism through the lens of a medieval-based fantasy world. Laced with humor, heartfelt relationships, and well-developed secondary characters, the immersive world is one I was reluctant to leave when the book ended. The story itself is a powerful allegory for injustices in our modern world that asks young readers to consider “Who benefits?” from lies and mis- (or dis-) information. As a librarian, I swooned for Ursu’s accessible and subtly-incorporated guidance on how to evaluate historical sources (in this case, tapestries) for bias. But all of this comes within the package of an imaginative boarding-school-fantasy that is as fun as it is thought-provoking. Pick this one up for your middle grade reader or your 4th-7th grade book club!