REVIEW: To Shape a Dragon’s Breath by Moniquill Blackgoose

Last Updated on July 3, 2024

In a grim world damaged by dragon wars, colonization, and industrialization, To Shape a Dragon’s Breath follows the story of a young Indigenous girl who becomes the hope of her people. Instead of Dragon rider, her people call her Nampeshiweisit. Throughout the book, Blackgoose digs up the older roots of fantasy and plants new life with original ideas, growing this novel into a stronger, more thoughtful story. In a whaling village, a girl watches as a rare dragon leaves its egg. It hatches in front of Anequs, who finds herself in a bond with a baby dragon. Anequs is led into the horrid, complicated politics between her people and the colonial government, which requires that she train in dragoneering at a dragon academy, far away from her people.

To Shape A Dragon's BreathAt Kuiper’s Academy of Natural Philosophy and Skiltakraft, students learn all about dragon academics. The sciences, philosophies, and engineering of the nineteenth century become the basis for this empirical dragon school, where tweedy teachers make the average black-gowned fantasy professor look like an angel. But where the typical fantasy makes boarding schools seem like a cozy academic fairytale, Blackgoose makes this academic colonial horror into reclaiming power.

Anequs and her dragon, Kasaqua, leave their whaling village for the steam trains of the Anglish world. I imagined this world as an epic industrial society if the Vikings lived in the Victorian age. Following the requirements of the Ministry of Dragon Affairs, Anequs studies anglereckoning and other magical academia to graduate in dragoneering. Blackgoose puts industrious thought into how the magic works. This is an intensely nerdy book—full of theories, mathematics, devices, and the wacky scientists who make them. Add that up with dragons and oral storytelling, To Shape A Dragon’s Breath made for a fun, smart read. Blackgoose brings a daring, entirely hot, take on dragonriders and worldbuilding that outshine what I’ve previously read. I love a fantasy author that pokes, prods, and questions the genre. That storytelling puts a different perspective, embracing what fantasy is truly about. It encourages growth over stagnation.

Characters in To Shape a Dragon’s Breath command the story. Blackgoose makes every character with even the smallest scenes captivating with intriguing, interesting details about them. Existing in this grunge civilization, Anequs experiences a world where everything is unkind and brutal compared to the softness of her home. While the Anglish see progress through their rose-tinted glasses, she sees atrocity, broken laws, and prejudice. Fantasy and dragons give her perspective another layer in a frightening fantasy world that truly feels like a cultural shock. Tight corsets, anthropologists treating her existence at the academy as an experiment, spending time with her lady amour in private, and restrictive rules for women and queer people all frustrate Anequs. Truly, you can feel the fire within in a world like that.

Not only does the world feel real, but the characters have personalities beyond their dragons. Anequs is both a clever protagonist and a delightfully rageful one in equal measure. I am charmed by her unfiltered tongue, like her confusion about expressing love in public or her grumblings about women having to wear such restrictive clothing. I like that she does not conform or feel sorry for refusing to conform to their culture’s expectations of her. She’s so wonderfully dry-humored in a dark world, which is exactly the balance I look for in a great dark fantasy novel. There’s a genuine feeling that she wants to follow in the footsteps of her ancestors, and points out that there is nothing wrong or backward about that. But as a student she is confronted with the poisonous attitudes the Anglish have about her people, making her increasingly invested in her people’s liberation.

Every character in To Shape a Dragon’s Breath is fully realized—some have quirks, oddities, family obligations, dislikes, tempers, and money to earn. I enjoyed seeing that the author wrote such nuanced, complicated queer and disabled characters, including a teacher who fought in a dragon war. And all of them are imperfect and flawed. The relationships are richly written too, be it father and daughter or grumpy classmates to good friends. My favorite is Theod, who when first introduced to Anequs says “I am the offspring of murderers.” His prickly relationship with her turns into something very deep and full of heartache, which readers will particularly be
pulled towards. I am used to Fantasy novels that portray a dark world where sensitive feelings are portrayed as unimportant and weak. I love that Blackgoose shows characters feelings towards courtship or towards family as something to appreciate. The development of everyone in To Shape a Dragon’s Breath felt visible as clear glass.

To Shape a Dragon’s Breath is one blazing epic gulp of a fantastic tale. Queer, anticolonialist, and full of dragons. Moniquill Blackgoose’s writing is easy to love: cutthroat, smooth, and reminds me of a story being told over an open fire.

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Brigid Flanagan

Brigid Flanagan

Brigid spends her life searching the deep, dark world of words and storytelling. She spends her time thinking about folklore, mythology, lyrical sagas, and a mixture of all types of romantic legendary tales. They review @thefantasyinn and have written for media outlets on anything having to do with bookish content and nerdy fandom.

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