Blackgoose began writing science fiction and fantasy when she was twelve and hasn’t stopped writing since. She is an enrolled member of the Seaconke Wampanoag Tribe, and a lineal descendant of Ousamequin Massasoit. She is an avid costumer, and an active member of the steampunk community. She has blogged, essayed, and discussed extensively across many platforms the depictions of Indigenous and Indigenous-coded characters in sci-fi and fantasy. Her works often explore themes of inequality in social and political power, consent, agency, and social revolution.
Jason Jefferies of Explore Booksellers in Aspen, Colorado, served on the bookseller panel that selected Blackgoose’s book for Indies Introduce. He said of the debut, “This is one of the best fantasy books I have ever read. Imagine Daenerys Targaryen going to Hogwarts, but with more history and care sprinkled throughout the story. To Shape a Dragon’s Breath is a triumph of the fantasy genre, and Moniquill Blackgoose is a bright new star in the literary sky.”
Here, Blackgoose and Jefferies discuss To Shape a Dragon’s Breath.
Jason Jefferies: This is one of the best “first books” I have read in a fantasy series. What other “first books” in a series were you inspired by, for better or worse, and how did you carry that inspiration into the writing of To Shape a Dragon’s Breath?
Moniquill Blackgoose: My absolutely favorite fantasy series is Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, though there’s not really a definitive “first” — the series can be approached from several different starting points. I was introduced to the series with the “witches” books, starting with Equal Rites.
Regarding more traditional, linear series, the first book of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, His Majesty’s Dragon, is one of my all-time favorite books, as is the first book of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series, Dragonflight. Both books do an excellent job of building a vivid and unique world and introducing engaging characters; I hope that I’ve achieved that in the first book of my own series.
The fact is, most of the books that I adore and that have shaped me as a writer are not parts of series, or are not fantasy, or are not even fiction. When writing To Shape a Dragon’s Breath I spent a lot of time reading Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, and actual victorian-era etiquette and fashion guides.
JJ: Where does your novel take place, and how is the protagonist of your novel different from most mainstream fantasy protagonists?
MB: To Shape a Dragon’s Breath takes place in southern New England (Rhode Island, Massachussetts) in the 1840s in a very alternate timeline — the Roman Empire never existed, the British Isles were settled by Scandinavian seafarers, and the European colonization of the east coast of the US is proceeding differently. Also, there are dragons.
Anequs differs from most fantasy protagonists in that she’s Indigenous, from a traditional Indigenous community — and this impacts everything about the way she experiences the world. Her understanding of her relationship to her dragon, her relationship to the world and to her family and community, what her responsibilities are, and her expectations about her future are all informed by her Indigenous identity and how different it is on a fundamental level from the Anglish cultural norms that she’s thrust into. One of my greatest goals in telling Anequs’ story is to get the readers to comprehend how fundamentally different the European/colonialist perceptions of the world are from the Indigenous perceptions.
JJ: Dragons are different in the world of your novel. Particularly the act of raising dragons. What is the process of raising a dragon in the world of To Shape a Dragon’s Breath, and how do your dragons differ from, say, George R. R. Martin’s or the dragons in D&D-related worlds like Dragonlance or the Forgotten Realms?
MB: I don’t have a lot of knowledge about Dragonlance or the Forgotten Realms specifically; I’ve never played in those worlds. As far as I can tell, the dragons in those worlds are fully-realized people with human-like intelligence; my dragons are very firmly animal in nature — more like George R. R. Martin’s dragons. Like those dragons, dragons in my world are utilized by humans as flying mounts and devastating weapons. In my world, dragons form an unbreakable psychic bond with their chosen humans and breathe a kind of pure chaos magic that rips molecules apart rather than “fire”, “ice”, or “acid”. Much more attention is given to the different ways dragons could be utilized by humans depending on their culture, and how different cultures would evaluate their relationships with them. My dragons are also a great deal smaller than dragons in many popular universes — only 20-30 feet long, and designed with an intent toward biological plausibility. In short, My Dragons are Different.
JJ: Your protagonist, Anequs, is sent to a school — with her dragon — in an effort to influence and cultivate the dragon’s behaviors. How does this school differ from Hogwarts in the Harry Potter novels, and what are the social dynamics at play?
MB: The only similarity between Hogwarts and Kuiper's Academy of Natural Philosophy and Skiltakraft is that they are schools with living quarters for students. Kuiper’s is far more akin to a university — the students range from 14 to 20 years of age, a typical course of study is 4–6 years, there are classes on history, literature, math, and science as well as dragon husbandry and skiltakraft. Anequs’ relationship with the school is a fraught, oftentimes adversarial one — she is an outsider in a place that is antithetical to the values of her culture, and the people around her presume that she should be delighted to be given the opportunity to become just like them — to be “elevated beyond her station” and “lifted from savagery”.
JJ: Finally, for the fantasy reader who loves your book, and who maybe wants to get away from more mainstream fantasy fare, what books would you recommend they check out?
I’m not sure what counts as “mainstream fantasy fare” these days, honestly, and I don’t have my finger on the pulse of the fantasy market. But if you’re looking for me to squee about fantasy that I love and that’s made an impact on me:
The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle deeply impacted my understanding of what stories are — what they’re for, what they mean.
Discworld, by Terry Pratchett. All of it — totally recontextualizes fantasy and uses a high fantasy setting to explore life, the universe, humanity, philosophy, etc.
Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series — The Napoleonic wars, but now with dragons!
The Inheritance Trilogy by N. K. Jemisin — superb and deep worldbuilding, diverse cast, explorations of divinity, creation, faith, and humanity.
The Leviathan series by Scott Westerfeld — Steampunk and biopunk and WWI!
Elatsoe by Darcie Littlebadger — A young Indigenous protagonist solving a life-and-death mystery in a fully realized fantasy world.
To Shape a Dragon’s Breath by Moniquill Blackgoose (Del Rey, 9780593498286, Paperback Fantasy, $18) On Sale: 5/9/2023.
ABA member stores are invited to use this interview or any others in our series of Q&As with Indies Introduce debut authors in newsletters and social media and in online and in-store promotions. Please let us know if you do.