And so in a moment of madness, the chief defies the Lady, and the gods. He will make his daughter perfect himself. First left, then right: he holds the tiny arms and with his sharp bronze knife, slices away the useless thumbs. He pinches the wounds shut till the bleeding stops and rocks his baby till her crying stops, too.
Aissa is the first born child of the Lady but the Lady rejects her because of this deformity. Her father dies the next day in a boating accident. Is this fate or the gods? Aissa is cast out. Sent to live with a foster family. She is a tiny baby and so Mama and Dada are her true parents in her eyes. Then the raiders arrive when Aissa is just four years old. Her Mama hides her in the hills with this warning :
"Don't make a sound,' says Mama, brushing her fingers over Aissa's lips. 'No matter what you see, no matter what you hear, you stay quite, still as stone till I come back."
Jump forward 8 years. Aissa is now living in the court of the Lady. Aissa does not know her heritage but she is coming to realise she has a special gift of communication with animals.
"The Bull King ... hears that your island is troubled by slaving raids and pirates. He promises that these will end from today. In return for his protection, each year you will pay twelve barrels of olive oil, twelve goat kids, twelve jugs of wine, twelve baskets of grain, twelve baskets of dried fish, twelve lengths of woven cloth - and a boy and a girl of thirteen summers"
"If they survive the year, they may return home and your island will be free of further tribute."
While Assia is desperate to be chosen as a bull dancer she is the lowest of the low. She is the slave who cleans the privies, she is the slave other slaves taunt and abuse.
She hates the spitting,
wet on her face
muck on her hair,
her clothes, her feet.
The selection of the bull dancer is done by lottery.
The guard holds out the basket of shards.
a piece long and thin,
tapering down to a point
like a dragonfly tail.
She takes the charcoal,
draws the sign of her name,
and drops it in.
When Nasta's name is called my heart stopped beating for a moment such is the power of this writing.
In the second part of this powerful book you will read about Aissa's journey to the court of the Bull King, of her dancing lessons and position in the court as a priestess until finally it is her turn to enter the bull ring.
Dragonfly Song has nearly 400 pages. I found it took me a long time to settle down and actually read long sections and I am not sure why this happened. I actually started this book three or four times. I can now say I absolutely enjoed this book especially the last third. I am so glad I persevered because the strong scenes in this book continue to linger with me especially the scenes in the bull ring and earlier in the book when Aissa is given a new tunic. Twin slaves Half-One and Half-Two toss it into the privy hole.
"Servants are given their freshly washed, handed-down tunics for the next year. Aissa's is neatly folded in a corner of the kitchen ... clean and almost white, with all the tears mended. ... 'Your new tunic didn't stink the way you like it. So we threw it down the hole this morning."
This is so awful but the next scene is glorious. Everyone is away. Aissa goes into the Lady's bathroom. She finds a discarded tunic. She slips out of her own filthy rags and steps into the tub which is filled with luxurious hot water. She washes her body and hair until the water runs clear and then she steps into the new tunic fully revived.
The combination of narrative and verse writing adds to the strong emotional impact. Mature readers with stamina will be rewarded with a rich story, a wonderful heroine in Aissa and desperate scenes of rejection balanced with those showing deep human compassion. There are some violent scenes in this book - you can preview one on pages 300-301. I would follow Dragonfly song with Fearless by Tim Lott (a book I have mentioned on this blog previously which I plan to re-read in the coming weeks) and Wolf Hollow.
Read an extract of this award winning book on the publisher web site. You will also find some teacher notes. I actually cheered when I saw Kirkus gave Dragonfly Song a star! You might like to read the CBCA judges report too.
As mesmerizing as a mermaid’s kiss, the story dances with emotion, fire, and promise. Kirkus star review