Author: Patrick Ness
Publisher: Quill Tree Books
Genre(s): YA Fantasy, Historical Fiction
Subject(s)/Themes(s): War, Discrimination, Dragons
Representation: Biracial MC, Gay MC
Release Date: June 2nd, 2020
Page Count: 384 (hardback)
On a cold Sunday evening in early 1957, Sarah Dewhurst waited with her father in the parking lot of the Chevron gas station for the dragon he’d hired to help on the farm…
Sarah Dewhurst and her father, outcasts in their little town of Frome, Washington, are forced to hire a dragon to work their farm, something only the poorest of the poor ever have to resort to.
The dragon, Kazimir, has more to him than meets the eye, though. Sarah can’t help but be curious about him, an animal who supposedly doesn’t have a soul but who is seemingly intent on keeping her safe.
Because the dragon knows something she doesn’t. He has arrived at the farm with a prophecy on his mind. A prophecy that involves a deadly assassin, a cult of dragon worshippers, two FBI agents in hot pursuit—and somehow, Sarah Dewhurst herself.
CW: racism, homophobia, graphic violence, near-assault
Ah, Patrick Ness. He never goes for the boring, does he? I so admire his drive to create stories that count for something–narratives that serve as pointed commentary on an aspect of society or of human nature, sometimes via non-human characters (he forever has my respect for choosing to tackle an inverted version of Moby Dick from the PoV of whales)–and willingness to branch out into wild genres and concepts. His ideas are like a mystery parfait. A delicious delight to spoon through.
Burn is unlike any of his previous books, yet so entirely like all of his previous books. Bold and imaginative and doesn’t shy away when faced with tough questions, it comes out on the other side with a strong thematic core, even if it does sacrifice a few things along the way.
It’s 1957 and dragons exist in this alternate world, distrusted and looked down on by human society. There have been major conflicts waged between the two groups across history, but all of that is done and out of the way now, with a peace treaty placing the parties in a cold but slightly less hostile relationship.
There is also a Canadian cult that worships said dragons, but not the dragons directly. They instead choose to worship a human proxy who represents the dragon divinity–never mind the fact that the dragons don’t give a toss about humans, cultists or otherwise, and have no voice in electing this pope figure for their own fan club. Then there’s an end-of-the-world prophecy revolving around the protagonist Sarah (it tickles me that the idea of dragons is shrug-worthy in this world, but prophecies and clairvoyance are considered nonsense. I love an alt-fantasy setting with strict rules and boundaries); a sheltered gay assassin named Malcolm who is determined to stop her at any cost; two FBI agents hot on his trail; one red dragon with sandpaper-dry snark; and an examination of inherited hatred, violence, and the human propensity to hurl ourselves into mutual destruction.
And they all work.
Most definitely in the first half, which is a stretch of perfect pacing, great character introductions, and a flurry of events that devolve into heartbreak and anger.
I quite loved the main cast of characters–Sarah’s frustration and empathy, her father’s dilemma, Kazimir’s sass, Malcolm’s innocence warring with his cold violence–even though some we don’t see too much of. I found it particularly poignant how Sarah and Malcolm’s storylines are near-mirrors of each other. How both childhoods were shaped by authorities dictating the paths their lives must take, and the boundaries that can’t be crossed, based on what they are and what they are not. And when it comes to good people doing terrible things, morally grey people doing terrible things, and terrible people doing terrible things, the book knows to make you understand what the differences are.
The second half dives deeper into the major themes, and character work takes a backseat as all the plot threads are gathered into one clear moral lesson: that we must be vigilant of how hatred, including self-hatred, curdles and spreads and ricochets across space and time until we can’t even tell where it ends and where it begins. That’s something you can count on with Ness; things like plot and character might skew sideways, but the point of the story never gets lost.
I do think Burn works better if you look at it as a long parable as opposed as your normal YA fiction. There are definitely questions left unanswered by the end, and the characters brush off traumatic events with concerning ease, giving it the feel of a folktale in which things happen and you just have to accept that they do, even though you’re not exactly sure why.
While it’s not favourite story of his, it’s still a strong, memorable entry into his bibliography that had me ruminating for a while after.
Review copy provided by the publisher. All opinions are my own.