Read Along with Faye is back for the 2017 Sirens Reading Challenge! Each month, Sirens communications staff member Faye Bi will review and discuss a book on her journey to read the requisite 25 books to complete the challenge. Titles will consist of this year’s Sirens theme of women who work magic. Light spoilers ahead. We invite you to join us and read along!
E. K. Johnston’s The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim came highly recommended to me by several people whose reading tastes I trust. In fact, few books come to me so fully primed and ready for the Faye stamp of approval as much as this one: it’s set in Canada, it has amazing worldbuilding, it’s got dragons, and it’s from the point of view of a teenage girl named Siobhan who, though she is called a bard, is essentially a glorified publicist.
Johnston has created a masterful alternate present world where industrialization and carbon emissions have tangible consequences: dragons. Dragons of various varieties terrorize local human populations—property damage, maiming and even death are commonplace, perhaps even expected. The most important buildings are fireproofed (“the hospital, the schools and the hockey arena,” natch, as this is Canada); lighting a fire outside is akin to leaving food out for a bear; hybrid cars are prized as the most safe; and most importantly, dragon slaying is corporatized to defend large cities. The Story of Owen starts with Lottie Thorskard, THE pre-eminent dragon slayer, relocating from the city of Hamilton to rural Trondheim after a major injury. With her is her wife, Hannah, badass swordmaker, her brother Aodhan who had to take up the primary dragon slaying mantle, and her weedy teenage nephew Owen, slayer-in-training.
Siobhan and Owen meet one fateful day at the high school, and Siobhan is introduced to the Thorskard clan as a talented musician, tactician and student of history. Lottie asks Siobhan to be Owen’s bard, a role that combines storytelling with PR, to interesting results. Siobhan takes her role seriously, and she reminds me of other storytellers-as-narrators (Emras in Sherwood Smith’s Banner of the Damned comes to mind). She intersperses the present-day narrative with bardic retellings of important events in history, highlighting Johnston’s cleverness as it now includes dragons (!) such as the start of the (Lester B.) Pearson Oil Watch, Ford’s ambitious auto industry plan that devastated Michigan, and the origin of the Detroit Red Wings’ logo (ha ha).
While the smart and witty worldbuilding details are the best part of the book, the pacing was uneven and exposition-heavy. I felt like I was kept at an arm’s length from the characters. Owen and Siobhan’s platonic friendship is refreshing, but Sadie, a classmate who harbours her own dreams of being a dragon slayer, was regretfully underused. I loved hearing about Hannah and Lottie’s relationship from how they met, what they’ve each sacrificed and how they run their household, but I remain bemused by Aodhan and Owen’s long lost mother. I’m reminded time and time again, and remain absolutely fascinated by people’s individual reading experiences. Maybe if I knew that this was a) Johnston’s debut novel, b) the first of a duology (! very important detail!) and c) not really The Story of Owen despite the title and I find Owen kind of boring to boot, I would have been more forgiving of the exposition. I honestly wonder if The Story of Owen and its sequel, Prairie Fire, were written as one book, which were then spliced up into two 350-page YA novel chunks. As it stands, the emotional payoff at the end of the the first book doesn’t feel like it warrants the front-heavy exposition, and there’s a lot of action in the last 50 pages.
With that said The Story of Owen is wonderfully Canadian that it kind of makes up for everything. If you aren’t Canadian or not well versed in Canadian history or politics, you’d probably still enjoy it, but perhaps would find it less funny. Or maybe you wouldn’t? Only one way to find out.
Faye Bi works as a book publicist in New York City, and is a member of the Sirens communications team. She’s yet to read an immigrant story she hasn’t cried over, and is happiest planning nerdy parties, capping off a long run with brunch, and cycling along the East River.