Centuries ago, every small town and village had a dragon-slayer. They were members of the community, and they fought for their neighbours in exchange for food and shelter. Dragons were a well-known danger, but relatively uncommon. Until Henry Ford. Dragons feed off of carbon emissions, and Henry Ford’s assembly line drastically increased their food supply. To keep his factories from burning down, Ford hired a dragon-slayer, and in doing so changed the way dragon-slayers found and were compensated for their work. They moved from small towns to cities and were employed by corporations and governments, leaving the towns they came from to fend for themselves.
Trondheim is one such town, until Owen Thorskard’s family moves there after his aunt Lottie injures herself slaying a dragon. Now Trondheim has a dragon-slayer, and the town – and one resident in particular – will never be the same again.
The Story of Owen is a somewhat misleading title, yet at the same time is perfectly suited to the novel. Because this isn’t the story of Owen, but the story of Siobhan, the musically-gifted teenage girl who takes on the role of his bard. And that’s why the title is perfect, because the bard’s job is to record the dragon-slayer’s exploits in musical form for posterity; in-universe, Siobhan tells the story of Owen, but in the pages of the book, she tells her own.
Music is the undercurrent that ties together the series. It’s the reason Siobhan and Owen begin to work together, it forms a fundamental role in Siobhan’s character development in Prairie Fire (which I would LOVE to go into in more detail, but that would entail huge spoilers for The Story of Owen), and it whispers throughout the narrative, because Siobhan is always thinking of how she would portray people and events through music. When she doesn’t know a character’s name, for instance, she refers to them by the instrument they evoke in her mind.
One of the things I think Johnston does well in this book is the way she weaves inclusivity into the story. Owen’s aunt, Lottie, was a renowned dragon-slayer until an injury put her out of commission. Her wife, Hannah, is her smith, the person responsible for forging a dragon-slayer’s weapons. No one bats an eye at any of this, not the women in ‘masculine’ jobs nor the women married to one another. Considering Siobhan, the narrator, would have only been in kindergarten or so when same-sex marriage was legalised in Ontario, this is the kind of response you’d expect, yet it’s rare in fantasy to see a world in which a lesbian couple are free to just be a couple.
In a similar vein, it’s refreshing to see a YA novel in which the protagonist has no interest in romance. It’s hinted at in Prairie Fire that she is, in fact, attracted to men, but she has plenty going on in her life at the moment without throwing romance into the mix, and her relationship with Owen is entirely platonic. While I think romance does form an important part of YA as a whole – teens are, after all, at an age where they’re just beginning to explore romance themselves, and benefit from examples in literature – I also think stories without romance are important, because there’s more to life than romantic relationships.
I mentioned that Siobhan would have been in kindergarten when same-sex marriage was legalised in Ontario, and I believe this would be the case in her world, too. Although many events and individuals have different histories in this world, they tend to differ because of dragons; Lester B. Pearson, for instance, is not famous for having sent peace-keeping troops into Cyprus, but for having sent dragon-slayers into the Suez. Culturally, Siobhan’s Canada is so like my own that I laughed out loud at many of the jokes, like Siobhan’s wry comment that the ice rink, being one of the most important buildings in Trondheim, is therefore dragon-proof. Likewise, although there are fewer women than men in the Oil Watch, there is no difference in their roles, as in the real-world Canadian armed forces. As such, I think it’s safe to assume that in Siobhan’s Canada, as in ours, women were enfranchised in 1918 and same-sex marriage was legalised in 2005 (2003 in Ontario).
This weaving together of true Canadian culture with fantastical history is one of my favourite parts of this book. As in much urban fantasy and alternate history, Johnston takes something familiar and makes it alien, but the choice of Canada, while no doubt a natural choice for her as a Canadian author, makes this unique. Canada does not appear in Anglophone fiction nearly as often as the US or the UK. For Canadian readers like myself, the London of Doctor Who and the New York of The Mortal Instruments are the familiar-made-strange, yes, but only familiar because we know them from books and movies. Siobhan’s Canada is familiar because we know Canada from having lived here and that, in itself, provides a kind of strangeness without adding in the dragons and alternate history. As a Canadian reader, landmarks like Big Ben (which I have seen) and the Statue of Liberty (which I haven’t) are familiar in the same way Tolkien-esque Elves are familiar in high fantasy and faster-than-light travel is in space opera. They are, in other words, things I expect to see in fiction. The CN Tower and the QEW are different. They’re almost too real to belong in fantasy, and their inclusion states clearly that this book is unabashedly Canadian, and that, while Siobhan’s Canada may differ in some areas from our Canada, it is still Canada.
If all of this hasn’t persuaded you to read this book yet, let me re-iterate. Dragon-slayers. In Canada. Go read.
Nicola is a Canadian transplant in Edinburgh who, like all stereotypical Canadians, loves canoeing, Tim Horton’s, and a good game of hockey. She has yet to slay a dragon. You can follow her on her blog and on Twitter.