Author Patrick Ness takes us back in time to 1950’s mid-west America, exploring the real concerns of that era – the Russian/US space race, threats of nuclear apocalypse, racial discrimination and homophobia – and adding a few extra twists to this world in the shape of dragons, a trained assassin from a deity worshipping cult, a prophecy that seems to point to the central character and a test of courage and trust.
Sarah is a 16-year-old bi-racial teenager living on a remote farm with her father. They are both grieving the loss of her mother while struggling to keep the farm financially viable. A dragon is hired to clear some fields, but it soon becomes obvious that he has a greater mission, involving Sarah.
Sarah has a long-standing friendship and evolving romance with Jason, her Japanese American neighbour, and together they face the challenges of the society they live in and the curse of a prophecy that brings death and destruction to Sarah’s doorstep. Both characters show tremendous courage and resilience fighting against societal prejudice, a vengeful goddess, small-minded and power-crazy local law enforcement and the growing acceptance that they are at the forefront of a war between humans and dragons.
It’s difficult to say more about the story without revealing plot twists and surprises, so I’ll just mention that Patrick Ness has written for Dr Who and is no stranger to concepts such as multiverse, shape-shifting and portals between worlds. He has won the Carnegie Medal twice and his work is highly regarded internationally. His trilogy, Chaos Walking, continues to be a best-seller, and his novels are regarded as sophisticated fantasy, including fast-paced action imbued with heartfelt longing.
Restraint is an essential quality for sophisticated fantasy writing and in Burn we see an author delivering action and drama without overblown hyperbole and unnecessary explanation. It is very cinematic writing, and the fast pace keeps rolling right up until the final pages. It also delivers a believable world where dragons can talk and their co-existence with humans, though fraught with misunderstanding and mistrust, is readily imagined.
After I finished reading this book, I took a few days to reflect on the story as the messages are quite impactful. It would make a very good book for book club discussion. It could also be a great “thought starter” for parent/teen/grandparent discussion, especially exploring the themes of the 1950’s. I would recommend this book for all readers, 12+