The Story of Owen by E.K. Johnston

Review by Elina Taillon

Holiday House, Penguin Random House, 17 September 2019

(published in hardcover by Carolrhoda Books in 2014)

320 pages, paperback, $13.99 CAD, 978-0-8234-4502-8

Ages 12+, Grades 8-12

Young Adult, Fantasy

“Can you have it done by Wednesday?” [Mr. Cooper] asked.

“Yes,” I said. “Not a problem.”

“Good,” he said. “Try not to get your homework lit on fire again unless you can’t possibly avoid it.”

“It’s on my list,” I said, because I was usually wearing my backpack, and death in a fire was not my idea of a good way to go.

I went to the back of the room and sat next to Owen while my classmates filed in. The stack of essays on Mr. Cooper’s desk got higher.

“How many times do you think the ‘a dragon ate my homework’ excuse is good for?” Owen whispered to me.

I rolled my eyes. “Let’s not try to find out.”

For high schoolers like Siobhan McQuaid, the future is daunting enough without bringing dragons into the mix. But when the little southwest Ontarian town of Trondheim gets its very own family of dragon slayers, including her new friend Owen Thorskard, her post-secondary plans are swept up in a gale of fire. This isn’t a total disaster. After all, her musical skills might be put to much better use being Owen’s bard and recounting the tales of his heroic deeds than, say, earning a university degree that may or may not help her earn a living. Juggling school, her social life, and her informal bard apprenticeship is going to be hard. But life is going to be much harder for everyone if the increasing number of dragon attacks on Trondheim and the nearby town of Saltrock continue unchecked.

Siobhan and Owen’s world is very much like our own. The only real difference is that dragons have always existed and continue to do so, feeding on carbon emissions and wreaking havoc at their source—destroying everything from refineries to cars. No big deal, right? Dragon slaying is still a family affair, but slayers-in-training now do a tour of duty with the Pearson Oil Watch, an international dragon-slaying organization, before (usually) returning home to work under government or corporate contracts. Gone are the days of each village having its own slayer. Owen’s family wants to change that—it sure would be nice if it didn’t take hours for a dragon slayer to show up from Toronto! Part of Siobhan’s role as a bard is to revive the old traditions and inspire slayers to branch out to rural communities.

E. K. Johnston’s debut novel shines in its wry, witty rewriting of history and culture around the bestiary of dragons that inhabit this world. Life is very different when the simple act of driving on rural roads or starting a fire can get you eaten or burned alive. It’s easy to see an analogy for climate change in the devastation that dragons wreak in their pursuit of carbon emissions. In fact, this modern fantasy is very aware of modern complications—environmentalism, rural inequity, gender inequality, capitalism, LGBTQ+ issues, politics.

Aside from a little flash-forward at the beginning, the story is told chronologically through Siobhan’s perspective. She understands her world through music, as when she describes a new friend: “There was depth and breadth to Emily Carmichael, and enough warmth to carry the weight of the world without being crushed by it. She was a tuba to the core.” However, her sincerity is counterbalanced with a sharp teenaged wit.

After character and world are established, the mystery of the increased dragon attacks starts to unfold more and more quickly towards the midpoint of the novel. With only a few questionable points (such as the exact mechanics of dragon emissions and why a new anti-dragon militia must be linked to the soccer team), the action is airtight.

Siobhan and Owen are on their way to discovering who they will become in the future—but first, they must salvage their present. It’s a fantasy twist to the difficulties that both middle-school and high school readers face, and they are sure to blaze through this novel.

Elina is earning her MFA in Creative Writing at UBC to accompany her MA in French Literature from U of T. She enjoys books, fanciful thinking, cats, and teatime.

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