I love the premise: imagine a world exactly the same as our world in every respect, except that it's infested with dragons. Not your wise, telepathic dragons, either; these are just pests, mindless, destructive, fire-breathing beasts, particularly dangerous to modern humanity because they are attracted to carbon emissions.
This book was funny with the kind of sly, satirical poking at society I really enjoy. Of course there are dragon slayers in this world (and there's a perfectly valid explanation for why dragons have to be killed single-handedly, with swords), and of course dragon slayers are required by international law to spend a certain amount of time defending oil fields, and when their Oil Watch tour of duty is over most of them are hired by big corporations or governments to defend big population centres. Leaving little towns like Trondheim, Ontario in the lurch:
When a dragon attacked you had to petition town hall (assuming it wasn't on fire), and they would send to Toronto (assuming the phone lines weren't on fire), and Queen's Park would send out one of the government dragon slayers (assuming nothing in Toronto was on fire). By the time the dragon slayer arrived, anything not already lit on fire in the original attack would be, and whether the dragon was eventually slayed or not, we'd be stuck with reconstruction. Again.The juxtaposition of glorious dragon slaying with petty politics and bureaucracy hits my funny bone at just the right place. So does the incongruity of skinny adolescent Owen, who is failing algebra, as the latest in a long line of famous dragon slayers.
The story is narrated by Siobahn, a music student who is good enough at algebra to tutor Owen. His family asks Siobahn if she will be Owen's bard—a noble, traditional role that's been on the decline ever since the Beatles started singing songs that weren't about slaying dragons. Turns out the bardic job really means being a PR manager, because of course dragon slayers are celebrities and they want to be able to spin their publicity the right way. More juxtaposition of epic myth with modern reality. Johnston really gets our society, right in the solar plexus!
But you can't help rooting for Owen and his family, because they're just trying to do their job and do right by their town. Owen is courageous and competent and despite all evidence to the contrary he has faith in what he's doing, in the people he's protecting, and in Siobahn, who has her own courage and selflessness when it counts. We may have written off Michigan, but darn it we're not letting the dragons get southern Ontario!
I think some of the politics of dragon slaying might go over the head of younger readers, but there is plenty of sword-swinging action, and the developing friendship between Owen and Siobahn is a treat. (Very slight spoiler: they don't fall in love! How novel!) There are great, believable family dynamics, too.
The Story of Owen was loads of fun, intriguingly original, and very Canadian. The sequel just came out, and I think I'm going to buy it rather than waiting for the library to get it. It's worth owning.
It's like one of those fusion dishes that are so popular in restaurants now, where they take a traditional dish from one country and prepare it with ingredients or spices from a different tradition, and it ends up being really good in a surprising way and makes you look at both food traditions differently. Like butter chicken poutine. (Because, poutine. And butter chicken. And if you've never tried either, you should come to Canada and try them! Separately and together.)
This review counts as book 9 toward this year's Canadian Book Challenge. For more wonderful Canadian books, don't forget to visit John Mutford's blog, and check out all the reviewers who read way more than the minimum 13 Canadian books a year!