Dragonfly Song by Wendy Orr

The whispers say it’s not true that the Lady’s firstborn died at birth. They say it’s worse–the baby was born with an extra thumb dangling from each wrist.

If she’s not perfect, she can never follow in her mother’s footsteps.

On a tiny Mediterranean island during the Bronze Age, Aissa is not supposed to exist. The firstborn daughter of the Lady is meant to be perfect; how could the gods accept anything less in a priestess-queen? The chief loves his daughter; to make her perfect, he carefully slices off her floppy barely-formed extra thumbs.

The very next day, as he fishes on a peaceful sea, a high, curling wave comes from nowhere. It swerves and chases him; it towers over his boat, swamps, and sinks it. In seconds, the chief– the baby’s father, the Lady’s husband, leader of the guards, hunters, and fishers, ruler over land disputes and village squabbles–is gone. The gods have spoken: the baby’s fate can’t be changed with the cut of a knife.

Only old Kelya, the foremost of the Lady’s wise-women, wonders differently. Before the baby can be left on a high cliff, Keyla steals her away.

As the bluebells start to sink, a dragonfly hovers over them, iridescent blue in the dawn light. The wise-woman sighs with relief. Her gift is acceptable. She’s betraying the Lady, but not the goddess.

Kelya gives Aissa, whose name means dragonfly, to a new and loving family, goat-herders on the far end of the Lady’s island.

[bwwpp_book sku=’97817433690290000000′]

The worldbuilding is phenomenal. All the senses are used in these pages; reading is joining in the night journeys, the public and private rituals, the ache of hunger, the warmth or chill internal or external. You feel as if you are there, and what could feel distant, old, foreign, feels normal as you read. The narrative flows back and forth between the prose of an external, objective narrator and the poetry of a voice more aligned with Aissa’s experience. It is beautiful. Just enough is said and no more than the reader needs.

Aissa does not, however, get to stay with her adoptive family for long. Raiders come from across the sea. Only four-year-old Aissa, hidden by her wary Mama, escapes. She ends up at the palace and is taken in as a drudge. Aissa, mute and dry-eyed, is the lowest of the low.

In case the cover didn’t give it away, this is a story of the bull dancers taken as tribute to Crete. Dragonfly Song, however, is much more interested in Aissa becoming–the long and many steps and people and choices that make her who she is. I happened to read this shortly after reading Mary Renault’s classic The King Must Die, a retelling of Theseus and the Minotaur, which is also set in Bronze Age Greece, and takes a similar approach to the minotaur tale. Both books are not so much about how a youth sent as sacrifice on behalf of the nation survives and returns in triumph as they are on who this unique individual is, and how they are also and even more importantly a part of their community. Renault’s Theseus and Orr’s Aissa are, like most people in their day, deeply concerned with the gods and with interpreting the gods’ will. They are also, for different reasons, volunteers for the bull dance. In both books most the narrative lingers on the formative years and experiences of their respective protagonists; only the final third of Dragonfly Song is set in Crete.*

Aissa doesn’t know how/ to ask for help/ but this might be/ the time to learn.

One of the delights of the story was witnessing a child who is terribly alone begin to meet people she can trust, and seeing her grow in the ways she does as a result of her environment. Orr’s writing decisions are considered, thoughtful, heartfelt. My copy is liberally peppered with sticky notes marking passages I wanted to linger over.

What if the gods weren’t angry because the chief had tried to trick them–but because he had wounded a child who was perfect as she was? (242)

If you at all like historical fiction, Greece, dancing, singing, snakes, cats, goats, running, gymnastics, Bronze Age anything; stories of friendship, the lines that divide insiders from outsiders, culture clash, survival, desperate-brave and transgressive girls, or hope, this is for you.

Highly recommended.

*Sorry if I am belabouring the point; but I know two people who loved the worldbuilding and story but were bewildered by the slow start. This is an unusual middle grade book in that respect. Also, Dragonfly Song struck me as having a similar feel to The King Must Die, while being entirely its own story. It was such a delight to return to this sort of socio-political-cultural-religious climate & world with a wholly new protagonist.