In an alternate version of the present day, the world has a dragon problem. Dragons are drawn to the carbon emitted by burning fuel, which means that wherever there’s a fire, a car, or any sort of industry, a dragon will come looking to feast. Fortunately, for as long as there have been dragons, there has been a proud tradition of dragon slayers.
These days, most dragon slayers work in cities, contracted by governments and corporations to protect the considerable interests in these carbon-heavy environments. This is awesome for people who live in cities (least of all because it results in cool, if ill-advised, iPhone videos. And, you know, safety from dragons). People in the country don’t have it so easy.
This is why it’s “like freaking Mardi Gras” when injury brings Lottie Thorskard to her rural hometown of Trondheim. She’s the most famous dragon slayer of her day, and brings with her a fellow dragon-slayer brother and her sixteen-year-old nephew, Owen. Wimpy and bad at algebra and English, Owen is like many teenage boys, except for one big difference. When he’s not being tutored, he’s training to fight the dragons of rural Canada, and his tutor-turned-bard, Siobhan McQuaid, is ready to sing him into legend.
E. K. Johnston’s The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim has Starred Reviews galore and won a Morris Award this year, so it has a lot going for it. However, despite its impressive pedigree, my reactions to it were mixed. Ultimately, I liked the idea of the novel more than I liked its execution. When it was at its best, though, I enjoyed it quite a lot.
Contrary to its title, The Story of Owen is less the story of Owen, more the-story-of-a-quirky-speculative-version-of-a-dragon-ravaged-world-but-mostly-rural-Canada. It’s obvious that Johnston had a lot of fun working dragons into the history of our world, as every other chapter takes a break from the story to pour new tidbits upon the reader. Take this excerpt, outlining one of the story’s conflicts, as an example:
Most postmodernists blame the decline of the dracono-bardic tradition on the sudden and soaring popularity of the Beatles. The Lads from Liverpool were exactly that: four guys with accents who sang about love and truth, who never once mentioned a dragon slayer. The world split around them. There were many who loved the simplicity of the music, the harmonies and the earnest quality of the lyrics. And there were many who were afraid of the example they were setting.
For the first time since Shakespeare…the English-speaking world was confronted by a cultural phenomenon that was insanely popular and entirely bereft of danger. An entire generation of young people…threw themselves at the Beatles, much to the concern of their elders, who worried about the effect listening to the Beatles’ music might incur.
Note all the ellipses. Then imagine another sentence or two in their places. This to say, for patient readers who enjoy intensely detailed world-building, The Story of Owen is a delightful read. All this world-building, though, presents a big hurdle to less patient readers; Johnston often builds her world at the expense of everything else in the story. Truly, the world is more of a character than the actual characters, and readers have to take in a lot of fictional history before they can begin to process the significance of what the characters are up to.
And for me, though the characters were interesting, they weren’t nearly as interesting as the world in which they live. For people who live in a world consumed by dragons, they’re all astonishingly normal. Here’s where my opinions become extremely mixed. On the one hand, it was cool to read that normalcy. In this world, dragons are just another problem occurring in nature, like tornadoes or bears wandering into the neighborhood. People have plans for how to handle them. This chillness in the face of scaly, fiery death is amusing at first; the downside is that it becomes a little boring to read about after a while. Also, whatever tension is created when Owen actually fights a dragon is often counteracted by the way Siobhan tells the stories, beginning by narrating the version that she told the media (which is heroic), and then telling readers what actually happened (which, while still heroic, is less climactic). The climax itself, too, runs so smoothly and with such little threat to the lives of the defended population that there’s not much tension even there. The characters are simply too competent! (However, this does render a tragic twist at the end that much more unexpected.)
All this said, though I was comparatively indifferent to the characters, and though I found the pacing a bit janky, the world was interesting enough that I plowed to the end of the novel on the momentum of it alone. Most of the other things that I enjoyed about the novel are subtler. You wouldn’t know it from the cover, but Owen is biracial—Venezuelan-Canadian—and a significant lesbian relationship within his family is classily handled. Also, Siobhan is intensely thoughtful about music in the way that only an enthusiastic teenager can be; though it reads awkwardly at times—as when she describes her emotions in terms of the instruments that would play them—it’s not unrealistic for a creative teenage narrator.
It also makes her a much more convincing bard. Character-wise, the novel is the Story of Siobhan learning to become a bard even more than it is the Story of Owen learning to slay dragons! The novel is even (loosely) structured in a way that harkens back to the oral traditions that conveyed Beowulf and monster-fighting epics like it, which was a neat touch, even if we never actually see any of Siobhan’s compositions.
The Story of Owen, then, is an ambitious novel. Sometimes it falters under the weight of its own ambitions. Still, overall it’s a noble and amusing effort. It’s not for everyone, but readers who have the patience to give it a chance will find it rewarding.