Title: Dragonfly Song
Author: Wendy Orr
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Allen and Unwin
Published: June 2016
Synopsis: Abandoned by the priestess of the island at birth, Aissa is an outcast, surviving by her wits – until she joins the acrobatic bull dancers who are sent away to compete on the island of the Bull King. A gripping and powerful adventure by acclaimed author Wendy Orr.
WINNER: 2017 Prime Minister’s Literary Award, Children’s Fiction
WINNER: 2018 Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature, Children’s Literature
HONOUR BOOK: CBCA Book of the Year, Younger Readers, 2017
There are two ways of looking at Aissa’s story. She’s the miracle girl who escaped the raiders. Or she’s the cursed child who called the Bull King’s ship to the island.
The firstborn daughter of a priestess is cast out as a baby, and after raiders kill her adopted family, she is abandoned at the gates of the Great Hall, anonymous and mute. Called No-Name, the cursed child, she is raised a slave, and not until she is twelve does she learn her name is Aissa: the dragonfly.
Now every year the Bull King takes a tribute from the island: two thirteen-year-old children to brave the bloody bull dances in his royal court. None have ever returned – but for Aissa it is the only escape.
Aissa is resilient, resourceful, and fast – but to survive the bull ring, she will have to learn the mystery of her true nature.
A riveting, mythic Bronze Age adventure from award-winning author Wendy Orr.
When Aissa is born, she is abandoned at birth, feared disfigured, and taken in by another family until raiders kill them. Alone in the world, she is found by others, and dumped at the gates of the Great Hall of one of the Greek islands of the Bronze Age. Mute and nameless, she is referred to as No-Name by the servants and seen as cursed – bad things happen around her and she is called the cursed child, and so this is her life for eight years until the lottery of the youths who will be sent to the Bull King – to dance with the bulls, on what is most likely the Minoan island, Crete, at Knossos. Banished from the Hall, she is living in a cave for a time, until she is sent away.
Aissa learns that she can sing snakes and animals, but not talk – and she doesn’t realise she is doing this. When the priestesses at the Bull King’s island discover this, they take her under their wing to train as a priestess. Yet when she sings the animals at the bull leaping, she is thrust back into the world of slavery.
Set in the Bronze Age, and drawing on the myth of the Minotaur, the Minoans and Knossos, Wendy Orr has created a world where the role of names and identity is important to knowing who you are, as well as playing with the traditional sacrifice myth – where the maidens and youths of the isles were sent to the Minotaur as tribute every seven years.
The inspiration for the bull leapers comes from a fresco in Knossos known as The Bull Leaping fresco, depicting the ancient practice of bull leaping. In the novel, it is quite a dangerous affair, where many have died or been maimed over the years and have no returned to their homelands. The original painting is from around 1400BCE. The true purposes for bull leaping are not clear – without being able to translate Linear A, despite it being close to Linear B, used by the Mycenaeans, much guess work is undertaken about Minoan society from the archaeological evidence on Crete and Santorini. Or at least, perhaps not enough is known to fully translate it.
So this is where Wendy Orr starts to imagine what the bull leapers may have done, with a different take on the history and myths that are well known, through the eyes of a mute girl. To do so, the story is told partly in verse song, much like the oral tradition of the time, and the way the Odyssey has been written down, and partly in prose, exploring the rest of the story that way, and putting them together so the story is a whole entity and makes sense, and could easily fit within the mythic cycles, history and the traditions of works by Homer, and other epic poets of ancient times.
Minoan Bronze Age culture is not often used in books. Ancient Greek and Ancient Roman and the well-known stories of gods and goddesses are told. Perhaps because there is more to work with there, but surely there is also a sense of freedom in working with a culture where so much can be imagined and interpreted from the art and archaeology – until the scripts can be properly translated and give us more insight into the Minoans. It is the mystery of who they are and what they did that I think is what makes this book work, as so much must be imagined – but can also be drawn from the myths involving the island and the minotaur that it works well and I absolutely adored this book.
It is I think, appropriate for ages ten and older, for all readers, and can be the kind of book that just triggers an interest in that area of the world or history. For me, having studied the Minoans, I found it fascinating and then found myself tumbling down a rabbit hole of research into that area again, looking at frescoes. A great book and a good read to start the year and my many challenges.