I’m not a big fan of dragon books, so I was skeptical when I heard the praise for E.K. Johnston’s The Story of Owen: Dragonslayer of Trondheim, which got a lot of media buzz last month when it was nominated for the Kirkus Prize (it ultimately lost to Aviary Wonders Inc. by Kate Samworth).
Even the premise sounds nonsensical: the story is set in contemporary Canada, but in an alternate version of history where dragons are real. Dragons, it turns out, are addicted to fossil fuels, so they will attack anything that spews carbon: factories, power plants, oil rigs. After the industrial revolution, dragon populations skyrocketed, and cities employed teams of official dragon slayers to combat the problem, leaving rural, less wealthy areas virtually unprotected.
As bizarre as it sounds, the premise works because the dragons don’t feel forced. Johnson manages to make the dragons a believable force in geopolitics. We get glimpses of their role in World War II, the building of the Suez Canal, the First Gulf War, and the power of corporations to influence public policy. You could interpret them as a metaphor, and they do shine a light on all kinds of real-world problems, from environmental decay to celebrity culture and socioeconomic inequality. But leave that to the Common Core curriculum. I had much more fun admiring how Johnston inserted dragons into everyday activities. Think Driver’s Ed is boring? You might miss the boredom if you had to deal with a lesson on what to do if a dragon goes after your car while you’re driving down a lonely road.
I have a soft spot for books that skewer genre clichés, and Owen does a great job on several fronts:
- these dragons aren’t smart, or misunderstood, or mystical creatures with wisdom far beyond humans. They’re pea-brained killing machines with the survival instincts of cockroaches.
- the main character, Siobhan, is an aspiring composer and all-around band geek/musician extraordinaire who doesn’t care about social standing. She’s not bothered by her lack of friends, and happy with her music and her family. Pretty rare for a high school story.
- when girl (Siobhan) meets boy (Owen) and they get thrown together for good (first Siobhan becomes Owen’s math tutor. Then she gets roped into becoming his bard, for reasons too complicated to explain), they don’t actually fall in love. Which has to be some kind of record in YA, especially because they partner up for a save-the-town-from-dragon-apocalypse adventure.
What I admire most, though, is how Johnston made this Siobhan’s story. Even though she acts as Owen’s bard, standing in the shadow of every heroic kill he makes, she never feels like the sidekick. Her life doesn’t revolve around Owen. She had a healthy, full life before he arrived in her town, and the usual angst of high school (college applications, parental pressures, etc) provides a nice balance to the dragon-slaying episodes.
So it was odd when Siobhan and Owen brush aside two traumatic experiences near the end. There should have been a lot more resentment and guilt floating around, but they seemed to get over it remarkably quickly. It’s the only part of the book where they felt less like genuine teenagers and more like stock heroes overly focused on the greater good. Johnston has a chance to fix it in the upcoming sequel, where Owen will be fighting dragons full time. I hope she leaves enough room to deal with the fallout from book 1, and for the characters to keep the balanced perspective that made them so real.