YA Review: Burn

Title: Burn
Author: Patrick Ness

How could I turn down the chance to read a book that brings together dragons, prophecies, and assassins in 1950s America? I was very excited to read the new novel from Patrick Ness, and I’m delighted to say that he didn’t let me down.

Sarah Dewhurst lives with her father on the family farm. Since her mother’s death, her father has been struggling. If he doesn’t take drastic action before the summer, the bank will call in his debt and take the farm, so he hires a dragon to help him clear two fields for cultivation. It’s not illegal to hire dragons, but relations between dragons and humans are tense, and he knows the neighbours will be uneasy with his decision.

Sarah is no stranger to harassment from local people and law enforcement. She’s a mixed-race teenager in 1957, and her best friend is a Japanese-American boy who spent his early childhood in an internment camp. The dragon is just one more excuse for discrimination, and he understands how it feels to be discriminated against. As Sarah gets to know the dragon, he begins to share his reasons for being on the farm. Sarah finds herself at the centre of an ancient prophecy, and the target of a highly trained assassin.

The first part of the book follows this storyline. The Soviet Union is about to launch a satellite that could be used to spy on the US, and while the prophecy is vague, it centres on Sarah, the dragon, the satellite, and the assassin. The tension builds as the assassin, trailed by two FBI agents, makes his way to the farm. Just over half-way through, the plot twists, and the rest of the story plays out in an entirely unexpected way. Throughout the second part of the novel, idle sayings and superstition from the first part shift into reality, and the balance of power changes completely. It’s a very clever plot twist, and from that point on I couldn’t put the book down.

Sarah is a confident protagonist, used to dealing with people who don’t like her family, her poverty, or the colour of her skin. Her relationship with her father feels completely real. His trust in her abilities, his anger when she is hurt, and his frustration when he discovers she has been lying to him demonstrate his love for his only child, and the support they have provided to each other since the loss of his wife. The dragon is frustratingly alien and arrogant at the start of the book, but as Sarah discovers who he is and why he is on her farm, his attitude becomes more understandable and his relationships with the humans around him develop towards genuine friendship. Even the assassin has a human side, and his developing relationship with another boy helps to highlight his vulnerabilities.

It’s a clever, engaging book with some amazing world building – by the end of the first chapter the reader is completely immersed in this version of 1950s America, where dragons coexist with Chevron gas stations and pickup trucks and farmers in need of labour. It captures the paranoia of the Cold War, and the feeling of being on the outside of a society that would prefer you didn’t exist – dragon, mixed-race girl, Japanese-American, or gay man. There’s a cult of dragon-worshippers, a legend of a dragon goddess, a plot to kill Sarah’s dragon, and an exciting, dramatic conclusion to the story. Highly recommended!

Have you read Burn? What did you think of the story? Did you find yourself believing in dragons? Click through to the full blog to access the comments section, and share your thoughts! No spoilers, though – you can post those on GoodReads!

Review cross-posted to GoodReads.

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