Smash the World’s Shell
by Daniel Fliederbaum
Genre: Young Adult / Fantasy
Print Length: 324 pages
Reviewed by Andrea Marks-Joseph / Content warnings: suicide, self-harm
An unlikely friendship between a young dragon and human girl upends the world
Smash the World’s Shell is a story about misunderstanding the creatures we share a world with—and the difference a kind, lonely misfit can make by keeping their heart open.
Ellen lives a quiet life with her dad, both of them grieving the loss of her mom by suicide. When she finds a ring that magically transports her to the wild, outdoor, dragon’s realm—which should be inaccessible, because humans live under a protective dome specifically to avoid dragons—she meets Shard, a young dragon who offers to help Ellen amplify her mysteriously subdued magic abilities.
“A ring from nowhere that took her to a talking dragon that hadn’t killed her and wanted to teach her magic?”
Their communities are mortal enemies with longstanding lore to instill fear and hatred in their respective populations. Despite everything, they become fast, fierce friends. Their star-crossed, secret only-at-first friendship becomes the catalyst for escalating vitriol between their nations and sparks a catastrophic battle that could be the end of both their worlds.
Both leads are lovely and you immediately want the best for them, in that typical “the adults and status quo don’t know what’s best, defiant teens will save the world” spirit typical of the greatest fantasy adventures. Shard loves to paint but has to do it in secret because local culture says art is for dragonesses only. He struggles with acclimating to being shown generosity and gentleness because he’s so accustomed to being bullied and beaten up for his many “non-masculine” tendencies.
“Before, Shard had wondered if he was betraying his tribe by teaching a human magic. But now he’d come to a conclusion: he didn’t care. For the first time in his whole life, he was making a friend, someone who laughed and smiled with him, someone who didn’t hit him, someone he was proud of.”
Ellen is unsettled by the realization that everything she’s been told is untrue. “Every time they met, she was reminded that this dragon, this great beast of fire, was so gentle.” There’s great suspense in Ellen’s motivation to learn magic. She initially needs it to join The Guild, but no longer wants to follow her career goal of joining the crew (whose mandate is to fight dragons) now that she knows they’re capable of friendship and love.
There’s also a sweet, realistic blossoming queer romance between Ellen and a girl she meets while volunteering. “Ellen’s heart leaped, and a great, but terrible thought reared its head: I really do have a crush on her, don’t I? And the next thought, terrible, but great: I think I might be okay with that.” I adored the genuine, can’t-look-away captivating sapphic feelings buzzing between them, and how they begin to share secrets and go on adventures together.
“Lana’s voice was barely a whisper, her breath warm as it tickled Ellen’s nose. It smelled savory, but also floral. Was that lilac body wash? She had never been this close to another girl before, and it sent shivers up and down her spine.”
The overarching themes of trauma in this book are really dark, but author Daniel Fliederbaum’s writing is beautifully crafted to show how deeply affected the characters are by their various personal devastations. Smash the World’s Shell does sharp, brilliant work introducing concepts of the patriarchy, toxic masculinity, and misogyny holding both young women and men back from being their brightest selves: “Weren’t there any other dragonesses in the tribe who were sick of being less than the drakes? Surely someone was sick of being belittled and relegated to raising dragonlings and making pots and baskets and being banned from hunting and herding and farming.”
Firebug is a young female dragon whose immense natural talent is overlooked and dismissed because it’s within a skillset seen as typically-masculine. She’s also dating Shard’s brother, Keeper. Her storyline makes your heart ache, because we’ve all been there at some point. Firebug bravely advocates for herself, not allowing herself to be discouraged, but it’s still difficult to see. She’s a character I would love young women to read, someone who trusts herself and doesn’t back down just because other people tell her she’s too much. I believe this feminist storyline will serve as a point of relatability for readers of all ages but is particularly important for younger readers who may not have seen their experiences of being underestimated on page so vividly before.
The story also deals with the ever-present teenage worries that come with believing you’re not good enough. At its most poignant, Smash the World’s Shell is an ode to those who live under the pressure of the patriarchy and the pain of constant abuse—it’s a call for them to hold on and keep fighting, for their rightful time to shine under safe conditions. It’s a story of life-changing, world-shifting friendships; of misfits seeing something in someone’s eyes and deciding to stay with them; and of saving their life while they save yours, simply by being kind to each other.
Smash the World’s Shell tells a story about the power—literal magical power, but also soul-uplifting strength—of desperately lonely people finding someone who sees them as special and worthy of time and care. This is why, when these characters lose the connection they were so pleasantly shocked to have gained at all and come to rely on, it is devastating, and the depths of the depression they fall into feels perfectly reasonable.
Recommending the appropriate age for reading this novel is tricky, because the story is so clever and creative that I’d love to say it suits anyone middle-grade and up—but there’s a darkness rooted in a painful reality that is best considered very seriously before diving in.
Smash the World’s Shell deals with so many themes that are relevant in a teenager’s life: The cultural history in judging (and hating) entire groups before meeting them; the heartache and conflicting thoughts when realizing your dreams may not be ethical or that your career plans don’t match your personal values; coping with having parents who aren’t present; realizing that not everyone’s going to see your talents as valuable. There’s also extensive exploration of living with grief after a loved one’s suicide, while becoming friends with someone who experiences suicidal thoughts, and understandably not being able to handle that. These are not passing themes addressed vaguely, but very present conversations and emotions expressed within the story.
There’s a strong truth to the way Fliederbaum addresses this, which would have made me feel seen as a deeply depressed high schooler whose friends were mostly in the same headspace. Smash the World’s Shell has some of the most honest, accurate representation of feeling suicidal as a young person I’ve ever seen—whether in books, songs, or on screen. It’s quite stunning actually, especially to read in this context, because the rest of the story feels crafted for a slightly younger audience.
In addition to depression, suicide, and grief, Smash the World’s Shell examines how a once-innocent boy can be twisted into someone heinous and cruel simply by the society around him weaponizing his competitive spirit and insecurities. “I was just doing what you taught me to do — being strong, and protecting what was mine! If you didn’t want me to do that, why the hell did you drill it into me?” One of many bullies in this story, Shard’s brother, Keeper, knows that he’s behaving despicably, but readers can see the warped reality he’s been fed and all the implications he genuinely isn’t aware of come to light.
Smash the World’s Shell serves as a warning to adults about how we treat boys, jealous siblings, and the strongest characters in an impressionable group—and it stands in solidarity with all people living alongside these characters, experiencing their cruelty, who see these bullies for who they are even when society seems to reward their brash behavior.
Smash the World’s Shell depicts abusive relationships of various kinds: Abusive parents, siblings, leaders, romantic partners, and the cascading emotional consequences of these abuses. When Firebug helps Shard, he can’t quite fathom it: “Was another dragon showing him kindness? It didn’t add up.” When Firebug learns that her betrothed, Keeper, has been abusing his brother, she wonders, “if Keeper had it in him to beat his own brother, then what would he do to his Bonded mate? She hadn’t seen any warning signs, though admittedly, she hadn’t looked for them…”
I’ve mentioned most necessary content warnings above, but to be clear: There are descriptions of physical and emotional abuse that do not shy away from the brutality and violence of it. We live through achingly immersive scenes in the headspace of someone experiencing suicidal ideation and self-harming, including descriptions of them cutting. When a lead character has a panic attack, she has flashbacks on-page, reliving in explicit detail the moment she found her mother’s body, who died by suicide. This character reacts quite insensitively to finding out about her depressed friend contemplating suicide, but it makes sense within the text as we’ve experienced her relevant personal trauma first-hand.
Smash the World’s Shell has wonderful, inventive magic systems and a rich culture surrounding it. I loved the way Daniel Fliederbaum incorporated the specific quality of love and tension between siblings and greatly appreciated the scenes where young girls passionately enjoy watching sports. Fliederbaum’s characters allow readers to hold tight to the hope that love and goodness is always out there to find, even in a brutal landscape.
This is also a great book for readers who are aware of the damage humans have done to the environment, animals, and the climate—That low-key suspicion of human nature will serve you well as the mysteries unfold and more information is shared by the many characters who are keeping secrets from each other. There’s certainly room for a Smash the World’s Shell sequel, and I’d be delighted and very curious to return to this world to see what happens next. There’s an impressive optimistic energy that lives in the relationship between Shard and Ellen, and the way their friendship literally changes the course of history for both nations.
Thank you for reading Andrea Marks-Joseph’s book review of Smash the World’s Shell by Daniel Fliederbaum! If you liked what you read, please spend some more time with us at the links below.