The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy is a fantasy YA novel written by Anne Ursu (author of The Real Boy and The Lost Girl). This is a story about a young girl who is just starting to realize that the misogynistic world around her has told her fundamental lies about women, and that she is more than what the world has labeled her to be. This is the first book of the author’s that I have read and it definitely won’t be the last! I was touched by the charm, heart, and intelligence of this book.
The story is set in the fictional land of Illyria. At the beginning of the book, we meet our main character Marya and her family. The characters and family dynamics are instantly established here – something I always like in a book. Marya is funny and witty, but all in her own head – because in this world, girls are meant to be seen, not heard. I was hooked from the very first scene when Marya is feeding the old family goat and cleaning the chicken coop. It is clear from her responsibilities that girls have almost no value in the eyes of society and that she’s not formally educated, unlike her brother who has all the privilege of education and literacy.
There comes a scene fairly early in the book where Marya asserts herself and speaks her mind, something that she does not do ordinarily. Obviously I was rooting for her the whole time, but I was scared for her as well. After all, I understood deep in my bones the courage it takes to speak your mind in a world that does not want you to. Her courage leads to her being sent to a school for ‘troubled girls’. The story follows Marya as she navigates these unfamiliar waters and wonders why she and her classmates are labeled ‘troubled’ when they don’t feel like they are.
Author Anne Ursu does a fantastic job of building this world. Without explaining too much about social hierarchies she still makes it clear to the reader that this is a highly misogynistic world. She also balances the dark world with comedic thoughts brought to us by the main character, who keeps her sense of humor in spite of what surrounds her.
Marya is only 12 and does not yet know to question the things she has grown up with, but is sharp enough to realize that something is seriously wrong with the way she is treated. The conflict in her between what she has been raised to believe and what she reasons with her own mind is beautifully portrayed throughout the story. As a female reader it was all horribly familiar. I feel like we all go through that phase where we suddenly realize that a practice or belief we took for normal was in fact rooted in misogyny. That phase is always fraught with internal conflict as we are forced to unlearn and learn anew.
One part of the book that stuck with me long after I was done was something one of the characters tells Marya. Madame Bandu, one of the women in the village where Marya grew up, is Marya’s only true friend growing up. Before Marya is sent away, Madame Bandu tells her that when she hears a story that powerful people tell about themselves and she is unsure whether it is true, she must ask herself whom the story serves. Does the story serve the people who told the story and keep them in power? Then it is probably not true.
When I read that I had to physically put the book down and marvel at that line. In hindsight, and for us as adults, it seems like such a simple and obvious thought. Of course, in reality it is not at all so. How many of us are taught to look at a story and wonder whom it benefits? Whom does this story keep in power? Why are we being made to listen to it again and again? It is such an important question to ask. As every reader knows, stories have immense power – something Marya is told but only later fully understands. As the story progresses, her naturally inquisitive nature leads her to some dark stories – ones that were hidden from her by those in power.
I would definitely recommend this book to anyone I know. This book has many elements that will make it worth your while, even if you aren’t a fan of the fantasy genre. The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy has a thread of sorrow and darkness running through it but never crosses the line into being a completely sad book. Anne Ursu achieves a pleasant balance of the darker subject matter with doses of heart and humor, and I look forward to reading more from her.