“I’m just a girl.”
“It is tragic how well you have been taught to say that with sadness rather than triumph.”
Patrick Ness… Dragons… The Cold War… yes please!
It is no shock to readers of this blog that Patrick Ness is one of my favourite authors: the Chaos Walking Trilogy, A Monster Calls – which is probably the most linked-to review on my blog – More Than This, The Rest of Us Just Live Here are all wonderful. If I were to come up with a list of the key elements to a Patrick Ness novel, I would probably say
- playing with and subverting recognisable tropes and genres
- an uncanny element, whether from the supernatural or science
- ruminations on the nature and power of story
- vivid characters
- diversity and LGBTQIA+ issues, especially male-male relationships
- a pacy and beautifully structured plot
And Burn contains all the above in spades, wrapped up in a cracking yarn!
Our world for Burn is “Frome, Washington, the little hamlet their farm was in distant orbit of” in 1957 at the height of the Cold War. This setting emphasises the smallness and meanness and closed-in world of Frome where Deputy Kelby can terrorise the population with small minded racism and abuse; where Sarah Dewhurst, daughter of an interracial marriage, and Jason Inagawa, son of a Japanese family, live in isolation and anxiety and in some moments terror; where Miss Archer, the criminally underused “kind, young librarian who preferred the word “bachelorette” over “spinster”, continually poring over newspapers for threats from the Russians.
It is a hard world for Sarah: as she says to Jason
“Want? I want a world where my mother is alive and where we’re not going to lose our farm and where nuclear war isn’t a daily threat and where no one will hold us down because of the color of our skin or because we’re so poor we had to hire a dragon. That’s what I want.”
Yes, it is also a world of dragons. Dragons who had warred with humanity but with whom an uneasy truce – perhaps not quite a peace – has been in place for two-hundred years. Dragons with the power to incinerate a person so utterly that they vaporise.
Alongside this, there is Malcolm’s narrative, the member of the Believer cult who believe in the supremacy of dragons over humanity, heading from Canada towards the American border on a mission. This is a road trip, a coming of age, a romance once he meets Nelson, a thriller.
And this is paralleled with the narrative of Agents Dernovich and Woolf of the FBI (do they bear a passing resemblance to Mulder and Scully?) tracking whispers of an assassin, again keeping us tightly within the thriller genre. And as we follow these narratives, they come closer and closer, converging on Sarah’s farm in Frome… and that structure is tight and controlled and wonderfully balanced – we spend just enough time on each character to learn and care and deepen our understanding of them before moving again. There was not one of the different arcs that did not work.
But this structure of convergence only takes us half way through the novel. There is a serious shift at this point – which I shan’t reveal because it will be so much better if you experience it yourselves! Perhaps all I will say is that for readers of His Dark Materials and The Subtle Knife, and for readers of Marvel and DC Comics, you might find yourselves in familiar territory. For me the plotting and pacing slipped a little in Part Two. It is still an excellent read but perhaps not quite as taut as the first part.
But we cannot pass the dragons by without a bit more detail because these are proper classic fantasy dragons: massive red dragons full of fire and fury; smaller (but “still plenty big”) blues who are “scholars, and as such, rather more skeptical than others” yet still deal in prophecy. Kazimir, a blue, is hired to work – or perhaps allows himself to be hired – on the Dewhursts’ farm with ulterior motives and a streak of impishness which comes out wonderfully in dialogue such as this when questioned by the Sheriff
“I am armed, dragon,” Sheriff Lopez said. “I have bullets that will harm you.”
Kazimir looked, as always, slightly amused. The sheriff, Sarah, and her father stood about twenty feet away from where he rested at the edge of the field. Smoke still twined in the air from the burnt lumber.
“Are we declaring weapons?” Kazimir said. “For my list is long.”
We have to wait until Part Two to get a red dragon’s perspective and she is wonderfully – horrifically – depicted. It would be easy to see her as a metaphor for nuclear weapons and the mutually assured destruction of the Cold War – and perhaps she is – but she is also first and foremost a dragon. After all, there is something bone chilling in the opening to chapter twenty-four:
THE DRAGON WOKE.
And knew who she was.
Seattle knew who she was too! Those few who might have survived!
Ness’ body count here is high – very high! One of the highest body counts I have read in a while. The violence is not dwelt on and is not graphic, but like the sex between Malcolm and Nelson, it is there and Ness never talks down to his readers. Which is probably why he is consistently one of my favourite authors.
Alongside the cracking plot, there is also a real thoughtfulness behind the novel exploring issues of prophecy, story, regret, revenge and redemption and identity and hope. It is ultimately so hopeful, as Malcolm offers a two boys the chance to be together despite the homophobia, taboos and international border keeping them separate so that
If nothing else, they would both know there were chances to be had, even in this world.
And perhaps this is the idea at the core of the novel: second chances. Even if it takes a whole new world to find one.
This is a fantastic book, genuinely thrilling in Part One and building to an exhilarating and moving finale, whilst maintaining a real philosophical meditation on everything. Novels shouldn’t be this good!
Plot / Pace:
Publisher: Walker Books
Date: 7th May 2020