Sunday, June 21, 2020

The Story of Owen (E. K. Johnson)

The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim
The Story of Owen series, Book 1
E. K. Johnson
Holiday House
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Dragons have plagued humanity since time began; when humans discovered fire, the sweet carbon fumes of smoke drew the beasts like bears to a beehive. For almost as long as there have been dragons attacks, there have risen dragon slayers: those of keen eye and strong arm and swift blade, to cut through the dragon's hearts while spilling as little of the toxic waste inside their corpses as possible. Every town, every village used to have a resident slayer, plus a bard to sing their praises and instruct the populace in how to survive a dragon strike. In modern times, the bards are almost unheard of and the slayers have evolved to the global Oil Watch network, devoted to protecting the carbon-belching oil fields, corporations, and industrial centers of the world...  mostly leaving the rural areas to fend for themselves.
All that changed when the famed Thorksards relocated from Toronto, where their exploits were world famous, to the small Ontario town of Trondheim.
Though only sixteen, Owen Thorksard is already well on his way to following his father Aodhan and aunt Lottie into the family trade of dragon slaying... but he'll never get a decent post in the Oil Watch if he can't pass algebra. Siobhan McQuaid was just the girl who happened to help him find his way to English class on his first day in school - an encounter of happenstance that snowballs into her becoming his tutor and the first official dragon slayer's bard in decades, part of Lottie's efforts to break the corporate grip of the Oil Watch and return dragon slayers and their lore to the people who need them most. But it takes more than a talent for music and storytelling to be a slayer's bard. She'll have to join him for practice, for scouting - even for slaying. And with the dragon population near Trondheim inexplicably spiking, she might have to become more than just a storyteller. She might have to become a hero herself.

REVIEW: This is a different sort of fantasy book, different enough that it took some thinking to determine my reaction. The alternate world personifies climate change and industrial pollution as dragons which are never physically described aside from a few odd details; they're left vague smears in the reader's mind, smoke and flame and poison and glass-shattering shrieks. As a dragon lover, this irritated me - I love seeing new dragons in my mind's eye, so I crave details - but it works for the story, where dragons are the ultimate monster, something that can never be reasoned with or accommodated or tamed or even understood, yet cannot be eradicated and become the acceptable price for modern conveniences like the internal combustion engine and the wealth of oil. The narrator Siobhan sees the world as a symphony, every character and event carrying musical undertones in implied synesthesia. It's really more her story than Owen's, as she stumbles into a destiny that she never would've imagined (and which terrifies her parents), but which she cannot turn away from. Classmates become allies and friends as the town of Trondheim shifts from idolizing its new resident dragon slayer family to becoming participants in their own salvation - another break from Oil Watch practices, part of the politics of dragon slaying that have left so much of Canada and the rest of the world at the mercies of dragon depredation (another metaphor for how the highest price for pollution and climate change is paid by everyone but those who contribute most to it, who have whole governments and armies to defend their interests and profit margins.) Though there are dragon attacks and other developments, in some ways it's a slower and more contemplative story about teenagers growing up and finding a place, about realizing how little of what they've been taught about how the world works is true or set in stone, and about how it's always possible to act and at least try to make the world a better place... even if it requires great sacrifice. The story almost lost a half-star for a meandering buildup and some tangents that didn't seem to pay off by the end, but I ultimately went with a Good rating of four stars; the whole becomes greater than the sum of its occasionally slow and tangled parts.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Last Dragonslayer (Jasper Fforde) - My Review
Voices of Dragons (Carrie Vaughn) - My Review
Thirteenth Child (Patricia C. Wrede) - My Review

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