“It’s literally about corporate dragon slaying.” The book was put into my hands. Because I have sent many, many books home with this young person, I took this one home and began reading it. This is a wonderful YA fantasy/alternate history title that had great reviews and for good reason. It has an awesome premise. There have always been dragons, and the one thing they have in common with humans? Both are addicted to fossil fuels.
E.K. Johnston’s strong social message will be apparent even to the middle-school (or high-school) audience the book is targeted to. And then it becomes clear there’s not only one strong social message. Narrator Siobhan’s story is of Owen Thorskard, who is raised by his loving family–Dad Aodhan, Aunt Lottie (one of the most famous dragon slayers of all time, who had to retire early due to injury), and her wife, Aunt Hannah. There’s some overt discussion of marriage in/equality and discriminatory legislation. Allusions are made here and there throughout the book to past difficulties the couple faced. The family has moved to Trondheim so Aodhan can be its official dragon slayer, as rural Trondheim, not a bastion of manufacturing or natural resources, has long been left unprotected. (Note: The Story of Owen is set in Canada and almost everyone is very very white.)
Siobhan has a pair of happily married parents who show up occasionally to worry over her and demonstrate that they’ve done a great job raising a wonderful kid, and that they’re appropriately concerned, and they’re good parents and all that, but they’re cardboard characters. The healthy romantic relationship in the book is Lottie and Hannah’s. There are a few relationships that don’t quite get off the ground, and some that are complete non-starters. It’s a lovely thing to pick up a contemporary YA book with a high school narrator who isn’t utterly consumed by hormones.
The traditional slayer/bard relationship is dead, and Lottie and Co. think it needs to be resurrected. They scheme to enlist Siobhan, a musical prodigy, in their plan. It doesn’t take much scheming. They’re a really great family to spend time with. And she believes in their cause. Most slayers are now corporate employees with little-to-no incentive to protect rural areas, and even governments aren’t concerned with places where the money isn’t. How can this trend be reversed, and dragon slaying again become a noble tradition? Oh, we’ll do a lot for fame, or to be near it (more social commentary, but deftly done).
This is a great, well-written, wry, socially aware (environmentally and politically) book you should read if you have any interest in fantasy literature or alternate history. And if you have any younger people (or fantasy readers) on your gift lists, really, don’t pass this one up. Siobhan frequently thinks in musical terms, which works very strongly towards her already well-developed character. And the book is nicely plotted. The ending caught me completely unprepared and occasioned an out-loud reaction, partially out of plain old respect. I deeply adore Siobhan as a character, if that wasn’t clear.
I am glad to have a title to add to my mental canon of YA books that involve same-sex marriages as 1. nothing unusual and 2. not the point of the book, but that do involve a lesbian couple as an integral part of the plot as part of the strong central family unit. And initially I thought the book was handed to me by the dragon-crazy teen because “there’s a happy gay couple in it, and my librarian is gay,” but I think it was really really on the strength of the book, which is something that would not have happened even just a few years ago. This in itself makes me happy. If you work with young people and/or do readers’ advisory, go get it. It is so much cooler than I could ever make it sound.