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The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy

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Member Reviews

I've had the pleasure of reading a few of Ursu's other books, Breadcrumbs, The Lost Girl, and The Real Boy and have always enjoyed her writing and characters.  She's written a few empowering girl stories and her latest book, The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy is such a book.  Ursu focuses on the power imbalances or inequities that exist between various genders and explores this in the way that the boys of Illyria, like Luka are meant to grow up and become sorcerers, revered for their strength in battling the Dread, while some of the girls, like Marya are troubled and need to be reeducated into proper ladies.

At the beginning of the story, Marya doesn't appear too upset about her lot in life, males and females each have their own roles to play.  Marya and Luka have a grudge that dominates the first quarter of the story where they're focused on getting even with each other by pulling pranks meant to one up the other.  Marya puts honey in Luka's shorts and he ruins her dress.  Marya grumbles about how her parents see her as being unladylike, unable to do anything right, or how she essentially has to stay out of her dad's way, while her mom dotes on Luka, and is way stricter on her.  Throughout the story, the girls thoughts are manipulated in a way that causes them to doubt their own worth, at first believing that they're troubled and can never do anything right.  It's really sad how their parents disown or allow them to be taken to this Academy.  Marya is treated so unfairly and you can't help wanting to give her a hug, or send her another letter from her next door neighbor,  Madame Bandu, who was such a delight by the way.  I loved how she was the one who taught Marya how to read and write, offers to apprentice her as a master weaver, and keeps telling her that she did nothing wrong.  She's such a support to Marya and her kindness just radiates in the story.  Now Luka was interesting.  At first he was sort of stuck up, nose in the air kinda guy.  When he didn't get asked to be a sorcerer he doesn't seem too surprised, almost relieved.  Partially because his parents have put so much pressure on him to be the great sorcerer and bring pride to their family, and partially because of the amount of time/energy he put into preparing for his new role.  Once Marya is sent away, he changes for the better and I couldn't help wondering why?  Like why didn't he spill the beans about Marya knowing how to read?  I liked how Marya described him as having many sides, "the gifted, dutiful, cruel and one of fear," and maybe he's meant to represent that people are more complex than you think.  Lastly, I enjoyed how the story is meant to question "who does the story serve?"  and "who benefits?"  For the girls of Rose Hall, is was through their being educated at the school and daring to question what they were being told from the men around them.  I'd pair this with Miss Ellicott's School for Magically Minded by Sage Blackwood.  

** A huge thank you to Sabrian Kenoun from SparkPress for the E-ARC via Netgalley  **
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Marya lives in the shadow of her older brother, Luka, who is believed to be a potential sorcerer. In their country, boys who are chosen as sorcerers are granted estates and become protectors of the land who fight the “Dread,” a mysterious, deadly curse believed to be sent by the evil witches from the neighboring country of Kel. Note how this evil curse is caused by “witches,” females who are believed to have corrupted magic and turned it towards destruction. This is a central theme of the book; females are looked down upon and face infuriating hardships, and any who dare misbehave or ask too many questions are deemed “troubled,” or worse, witches.
In THE TROUBLED GIRLS OF DRAGOMIR ACADEMY, Ursu points a finger at our own terrible history of how women have been mistreated, abused, neglected, and looked down upon. In the story, Ursu expertly weaves some of that history into a fantasy setting, including how women (in this story, young girls) were sent to asylums when they were deemed unfit (for “witchcraft” in this world), along with beliefs that women were too unstable to be trusted with important jobs (or to practice magic, in this case), and how any girls who acted out or asked too many questions were believed to be “troubled.” Ursu has done a phenomenal job layering these historic instances into a fantasy setting along with magic (power) and curses (corruption of power), making them accessible to young readers. 
From the start, I was riveted. Ursu instantly drew me into her world right alongside Marya, who is such an endearing and courageous main character. Marya’s awful parents and brother who engages in a secret war against her instantly make me despise them all, for Marya’s sake. Ursu does not shy away from portraying Marya’s mistreatment, and succinctly conveys how girls have been emotionally abused and mistreated throughout history, both in this fantasy world and in our own world. Once Marya is sent to Dragomir Academy (for troubled girls) she meets new friends who were all sent to the academy for similar reasons. Marya must unravel the true history of the academy to understand why it was founded in the first place, and eventually uncovers secrets the sorcerers have covered up for generations.
It is a compelling read, but does not focus on magic or the magical nature of the world (giants are mentioned but not seen, magic spells are exhibited only twice in the book, etc). Rather, the story focuses on uncovering a false history (the question of “Who does the story serve” being a main thread), questioning what you are told and made to believe, and finding courage in the face of adversity. There are several bleak moments in the book, but ultimately these lead to a satisfying ending that holds a note of hope. This is an important book for young readers, providing a deep and thoughtful parallel to the challenges girls have faced throughout history, while encouraging them to never be afraid to ask questions and examine what you’ve been told to believe.
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As one might expect, these girls are not troubled so much as having traits that are undesirable for females in society. But discovering the range of those traits and the secrets of the academy are what pulls this novel along. The tone of the novel is definitely middle grade, but the exploration of this world's brand of patriarchy will resonate with readers of all ages. 
It feels like a first novel in a series as the bulk of the story is coming to understand the world we're in and Marya's history, but if it turns out to be a stand-alone then the story is certainly interesting in and of itself- it's just that the ending is compelling enough to feel like there's more story left to tell.
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With its thoughtful messaging about gender equality, the importance of education, and critically evaluating how history gets written and thus remembered, The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy is exactly the kind of book I want to give to my niece and nephews when they’re old enough. Despite some dark themes, it’s also so sweet, funny, and charming that I’ve recommended it to adult friends as well for comfort reading.

Don’t get me wrong: This is definitely a book for middle grade or young YA readers. However, as someone who regularly rereads A Wrinkle in Time, I recognize that children’s stories are often worthwhile reading for adults as well, both because it’s nice to be able to talk about books with the young people in our lives and because they’re enjoyable.

The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy opens with an explanation of the role of women in Illyria. While men might have great destinies as kings or sorcerers, women raise men, make their clothing, clean their homes, provide their food, and record their great deeds in beautiful tapestries. Written by another author, this opening might be heavy handed and cringey. It’s definitely didactic, but Ursu’s clever writing style makes it fun, too.

Then, we meet Marya Lupu, who’s cleaning the chicken coop. Everyone is sure her older brother, Luka, is going to be apprenticed to a sorcerer tomorrow:

"The Lupus had been waiting for this day since Luka had come into the world thirteen years earlier bright-eyed and somehow already sage-looking, as if he had absorbed enough wisdom in utero to declaim on some of the weightier issues facing a baby, if only he could speak."

Even though Marya knows the council that evaluates potential sorcerers only care about whether or not their candidates possess magic, Marya’s mother believes their house and family must be clean and proper for Luka’s big day.

Due to a combination of bad luck and an ongoing feud between the Lupu children, this turns out not to be possible. Mrs. Lupu orders Marya to stay in her room and pretend not to exist while the council examines Luka (big Chamber of Secrets vibes), but that isn’t possible either. A hungry goat finds his way into the house. When Marya tries to catch him, she only makes things worse. She not only creates greater chaos; she loses her temper and snaps at a sorcerer.

"Luka and Marya both had their roles in the family: his was to make them proud; hers was to disappoint them. Someone had to do it."

It’s no surprise, then, when the family receives a letter saying Luka will not be a sorcerer. It doesn’t matter that the council explicitly stated all that mattered was Luka’s magical potential. Marya is banished to her room and forbidden from visiting her friends.

A second letter arrives a few days later stating that Marya, by order of the king, will be attending “Dragomir Academy near Sarabet, a school dedicated to the reform of troubled girls.” No one in Marya’s village has ever heard of Dragomir Academy. No one knows what will be expected of her or even what she should pack. Still, no one tries to intervene when the deputy headmistress shows up the following morning to take Marya away.

I love Marya as a protagonist. Headstrong and brave, she spends most of her time frustrating the powerful people who would like to shape her into a soft spoken, elegant lady. She sees through adults’ “pretty words” to the hard truth of what they really mean, and she continues to demand honesty and fairness long after other “troubled girls” have given up.

Despite her strength, Marya is often self conscious, quick to take the blame for injustices beyond her control and anxious to fit in with her peers:

"Katya, awkward; Daria, suspicious; Elisabet, anxious; Ana-Maria, haughty; Elana, controlled …"

I found her fear that the other girls in her class would not want to talk to her about the mysteries of their school’s founding and purpose both endearing and painfully relatable. Marya’s the kind of kid who’s had to take care of herself because the adults in her life won’t, and that makes me want to take care of her.

At Dragomir Academy, girls are given a wide-ranging education in everything from history to magical theory, but the emphasis is on etiquette and “character.” The school’s goal is to turn them from “troubled girls” into proper young ladies who can fill administrative and supporting roles in sorcerer’s estates. There are strict rules governing everything from the proper use of “free” time to how to use cutlery. When a student commits even the smallest infraction, her entire class is punished.

This makes finding friends difficult for Marya at first. Most of her class’s punishments come from her. However, she quickly finds a kindred spirit in Elana, the daughter of a sorcerer who wanders the halls after curfew, seeking secrets and some sense of self-determination.

Elana uncovers the first mystery of Dragomir Academy: The school is housed in an estate donated to the crown by the Dragomir family, whose family portraits still hang throughout the school. A daughter appears in three of the portraits, from young childhood to around Marya’s age. Then she disappears, and there is no further mention of her in the Dragomirs’ letters or journals.

Other mysteries soon follow: What is mountain madness, an illness that usually strikes girls in their third or fourth year at the academy and causes them to see things that aren’t there? What happens to girls afflicted by mountain madness, who return looking thin and haunted several months after they fall sick? Is the academy cursed?

Why are the magical creatures that menace Illyria getting stronger? Why won’t Dragomir’s teachers or headmaster admit there’s a problem? And why has a sorcerer, one of the country’s most precious resources, been assigned to protect a school of troubled girls?

Marya and Elana are determined to find out. As things get worse, though, they’re gradually joined in their quest by the rest of their classmates and even people outside the student body. It’s really lovely to see such a disparate group of girls, who the school’s group-punishment policy have set at odds with each other, coming together to take on the people in power.

This isn’t a Chosen One narrative. Marya doesn’t save the day through prophecy or special powers. She isn’t the smartest or the strongest or the best at anything, aside from getting into trouble. Instead, Marya takes on the bad guys with a combination of bravery, determination, rule breaking and help from her friends:

"It would be nice, Marya thought, if once in a while she went into a situation with some kind of plan, as opposed to simply opening her mouth and seeing whatever came out."

I love the way she sort of stumbles headlong into trouble and then grits her teeth and hopes for the best–no strategy, just conviction. Ironically, though the adults of Dragomir Academy don’t see it, Marya’s strength of character is her greatest gift.

I can’t recommend this book strongly enough. Buy it for your kids and your friends’ kids and your kids’ friends. Read it aloud to them or save a copy for yourself.
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Marya Lupu is used to not being noticed. Instead, most people notice her older brother Luka who seems destined to become a sorcerer. In the kingdom of Illyria, every young boy has the potential to wield magic and help defend the kingdom against a terrible force known as the Dread. Everyone in the Lupus’ small village expect Luka to be tested for magic. But what they don’t expect is Marya to make a disastrous mistake during Luka’s testing, nor do they expect Marya to receive a letter from the king ordering her to attend a place called Dragomir Academy—a school for troubled girls. Marya is whisked away to the other side of the kingdom and told that if she learns how to behave well, she can one day serve her kingdom by working for one of Illyria’s sorcerers. Except not everything is at it seems at Dragomir Academy, and Marya and the other girls soon begin to discover significant secrets about the school, sorcerers, and even the Dread that could change everything in Illyria—but for the better or the worst?

In her latest novel, Anne Ursu weaves complex thread after thread to create a brilliant tapestry of magic, mystery, and feminist messages. While I enjoyed the magical elements, the characters—especially Marya—and the phenomenal world-building are really what drive this story. Marya is a wonderful heroine: brave, persistent, and relatable in her struggle to fit into a world that doesn’t have a place for her. The other girls are also extraordinarily fun to read about, especially as we discover what makes each of them unique. As Marya searches harder and harder for answers, themes of overcoming obstacles, fighting for what’s right, and never giving up shine through. If you feel like reading about some kick-butt girls who tear down the patriarchy, then definitely pick up this magical middle-grade novel!

(Pine Reads Review would like to thank NetGalley and the publisher for providing us with an ARC in exchange for an honest review. Any quotes are taken from an advanced copy and may be subject to change upon final publication.)
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"Who does the story serve?" is the question author Anne Ursu explores in this fast-paced fantasy featuring multiple strong female characters who learn to rely on each other--and themselves.  An important book that examines the disastrous results of misinformation and gaslighting, without ever feeling preachy.  Every middle school should have a copy of this book.
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Loved this book with my whole heart - Anne Ursu's work is truly a gift! Can't wait to recommend this beautiful middle grade to everyone I know.
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Thank you to #NetGalley and HarperCollins Childrens Books for allowing me to read a digital ARC of The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy by Anne Ursu. This book will be published October 12, 2021. All opinions are my own.

Marya has spent her life living in the shadow of her brother. Her parents and their small village are sure that he will become a sorcerer. The Guild of Sorcerers protect the kingdom from the Dread, a mysterious evil that kills entire villages with little notice. When the Guild arrives to test him, Marya makes a series of mistakes. Her brother doesn't get accepted and a letter arrives demanding Marya attend an academy for troubled girls. Dragomir Academy promises to teach Marya and her classmates the skills they need to make something of themselves. The longer Marya's there the more she learns about magic and realizes that everything isn't what it appears.

This is a fantastic middle grade novel. It was absolutely captivating, and I loved its positive messages. Marya is an underdog. She's never been expected to amount to much, rather her family has viewed her as a screw-up. The society she lives in views women as either weak or evil. Marya and her friends at Dragomir prove them all wrong. I also love the secondary theme about not believing what your read/hear. Mrs. Bandu tells Marya multiple times to question who the story benefits. This is an incredibly important message for readers. Stories have multiple perspectives and are often told in a way that benefits a specific party. Learning to question this and look for bias can be highly beneficial. Marya and the girls at Dragomir are strong female characters who are actively changing the world they live in, setting a great example for the reader. I really enjoyed this book and can't
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I really enjoyed The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy. For a middle grade / juvenile Fantasy fiction, it is well thought out and written. I especially am drawn to the premise that the "chosen one" doesn't always have to be the most obvious. I would recommend adding this to any library's children's collection!
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I didn’t want to put this book down! I loved Marya, the main character and how she evolved throughout the story. This was a beautiful feminist tale that examines roles society says you belong to. I truly wish I could give this book to my younger self. It was such a great twist on the magic school setting. Highly recommend it for younger readers. Older readers may find it a bit predictable, but it is still a very enjoyable read.
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I wanted to love this book and I really thought I would. The message is so great and it comes together beautifully at the end; however, it lacked some action for a book that was supposed to be about magic and battling a terrible monster. I was waiting for more plot twists and action scenes to pull the story along. A solid read, but I think most of my students will struggle to get into it.
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Anne Ursu does it again. She just can truly do no wrong in my eyes. She is someone who creates stories that all readers deserve to escape to. I love Mayra and I love Elana, and I truly think that so many young girls (or even girls my age) could see themselves in, or at least hope to become. I think this authors writing style is brilliant, and utterly magical. She wields words and molds these stories so that they feel like they themselves encapsulate magic. I loved the girls fighting against these restraints that are seemingly put on them from men that don't like seeing girls succeed. There is such an empowering message that I think can be enjoyed by both those who are in the midgrade range, but also those like myself who want to have a bit of nostalgia incorporated in their reading. I just truly love this story, this author, and the world that she created. She ALMOST makes me wish I had a kid so I could read this story to, but in the meantime I will have to settle with gifting it to others as soon as it is released.
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I couldn't put this book down!  Marya is always getting in trouble, and fighting with her brother Luka, who everyone thinks will become a famous sorcerer.  After a huge mistake, that takes away Luka's chance, Marya receives a mysterious letter summoning her to Dragomir Academy.  There, she has to navigate testy friendships as she tries to determine what led to the creation of this academy in the first place.  Ursu creates a vivid world with complex characters and the right pace of action.  I can't wait to put this in the hands of my students, whom I know will devour this in just a few sittings.
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A captivating story of being true to who you are, trusting yourself, friendship, the power of a team, magic, and most of all, always asking, Does this ring true? Who does this story serve?
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The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy was an absolute delight!  When a small town girl named Marya, who doesn't quite fit in, is shipped off to a school for troubled girls, the trouble she gets into is the sort that would make John Lewis proud and delight fans of the fantastic.  Anne Ursu makes cranky goats and ominous  conspiracies come to life in a way that had me gripping the book and rooting for the young heroines.  Well-drawn characters impart wisdom and obstacles along the way as Marya learns how to strengthen her backbone in order to stand up to-- and for-- the truth. Anne Ursu's wit and storytelling voice is warm and funny as always.  Add to it a her talent for social justice awareness, hilarious incidents, and vivid world building, and I'd say she's at her best here!
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A beautiful rendition of magic in a fully formed exciting new fantasy world, Ursu pens the insecurities of growing up delicately but accurately. Empowering and heartwarming, an excellent addition to Middle Grade fantasy.
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This book was such a fun read for kids. Great world building, relatable characters, and an engaging plot made this a great pick for emerging fantasy readers!
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The Trouble Girls of Dragomir Academy by Anne Ursu was well-written and would be a perfect fit into a classroom as a read aloud and/or in book club sets. The feminism and thoughtfulness with the message by Ursu was so well done. The magic within the book and the relationships are also major pluses for a classroom book - this is a well loved genre that rarely sees girls as the protagonists. I cannot wait to put this into the hands of kids and teachers!
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This was a great twist on the magic school genre. It  also had a feminist angle that I was delighted to see in a book for middle grade girls. The story was well written and the twists unexpected. Overall, a great addition to middle grade fantasy.
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The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy is a unique middle-grade novel with dynamically developed characters and strong messages. Marya’s brother wants to be a sorcerer, but when Marya messes up his evaluation, she is sent to a school for troubled girls called Dragomir Academy. As Marya and the other girls learn about being proper, conforming young women, they also find out more about the patriarchal society in which they live, as well as the Dread, which attacks whole villages.

Marya has always felt like she was living in her brother’s shadow. She longs to be accepted and treated as an equal to her brother but is often met with disapproval and disdain. However, Marya never stops questioning the inequities she faces. I love this! She is a fantastic protagonist, and I love her curiosity, resilience, and strength. There are some really interesting messages about equality, the patriarchy, and breaking the constraints that oppress you.

In this world, boys are treated differently from girls, and girls are judged based on how beneficial they will be to the country’s sorcerers. The girls at the academy are literally being educated and trained to benefit their countrymen. Women are considered less than if they are considered at all. However, Marya rejects these notions, and the more she learns about the magic, the men who run the country, and the Dread, the more Marya (and her friends) fights for the truth.

The story also highlights the importance of reading and education and the power of knowledge. Filled with wonderful moments of girl power, the story encourages trusting your instincts, standing up for yourself, and questioning authority when things don’t seem right. It also examines the toxicity of blindly following the societal norms when they conflicts with your morals and sense of self. I like how these poignant and important messages are woven throughout the story and found them empowering without overshadowing the plot.

A well-layered story with great characters and strong feminist messages, this is an immersive and unique read that will appeal to readers of middle-grade fantasy. Thanks so much to NetGalley, Walden Pond Press, and Anne Ursu for a copy of the book in exchange for my honest review.
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