Don’t you love it when a book comes along that makes you feel like it was written especially for you? Such is the case for me with E. K. Johnston’s debut novel, The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim which is set to hit shelves on March 1st. It is a mash-up of fantasy, origin story, dragons, music, strong female characters, hockey and other Canadian things, top-notch world building and epic story-telling style, among other things.
Yes, there are many things to love in this tale, which is told by Siobhan McQuaid, a teenage girl in a small Canadian town who is a gifted musician and an observer of rather than a participant in the everyday social activities of her high school. All that changes when Owen Thorskard and his family move to Trondheim, and Siobhan becomes not only the dragon-slayer-in-training’s tutor, but his bard as well.
All Owen’s training is on-the-job, as dragon attacks in the area have recently become worse and more frequent. Rather than remain content in reacting to the attacks or relying on adults to save the day, Siobhan, Owen, and their friends Emily and Sadie investigate the situation, discover a heretofore unknown breeding ground, and devise a master to plan to take care of the dragon problem that could destroy an entire geographic area.
What sets this book apart from other engaging fantasy novels is Johnston’s world-building. Not only does she thoroughly explain how the existence of dragons affects this alternate version of present-day Canada, but she also creates rich descriptions of how dragons have played a role in history. For example, Michigan was completely abandoned by humans, as not only did its lakes serve as welcome breeding grounds, but also its smoke-belching factories proved irresistible to these carbon-munching beasts. Queen Victoria’s slayers successfully moved a dragon hatching ground so she could vacation in Edinburgh. And the Roman Army stole dragon slayers all over the world and “sent their scholars to learn all the ways of dragonkind.” I must say I was not one bit surprised to find that Johnston is an archaeologist as well as an author.
In addition, Johnston’s dragons are complex creatures of varying species. Draconis lakus, for example, hunts near large bodies of water and is slow enough to run away from. Corn dragons (Draconis siligoinis) are faster but stupid. Draconis urbs is found predominantly in cities and is slow like the lakus. The most dangerous dragon? Draconis ornus: bold, big enough to lift a tractor, and known as the “soot-streaker.” And the dragon slayers must know how to efficiently battle them all.
As the story progresses, Owen and Siobhan are not only a dragon-battling team, they are social-action champions, the likes of whom would make Cory Doctorow proud. Rather than accept the status quo of birthright dragon-slayers getting busy while the rest of the citizenry hides and waits, Siobhan and Owen organize The Guard, a legion of teenagers trained to first escort the public to safety and then assist in defending their homes if necessary. The Guard are trained in tai chi, first learning moves sans weapons, then moving to poles, then swords. The ultimate goal? To change dragon slaying from a mysterious birthright-driven calling to not only a possible vocation of but a shared responsibility of all.
On top of it all, Johnston infuses the story with a wry sense of humor. When Owen’s Aunt Lottie moves from Toronto to the countryside, there is a media uproar–until the NHL playoffs begin. At first, Owen and Siobhan’s families think their searching for the hatching ground is too dangerous, so they forbid them to go to the library (!) lest they get into trouble researching old maps. And Siobhan is a veritable spin doctor when reporters interview her about Owen’s accomplishments.
Which reminds me–although Siobhan tells the story of Owen, Johnston tells the story of Siobhan. At first the reader recognizes Siobhan’s amazing gift for music, and, as the story progresses, discovers that she also “arranges” people and events to create something beautiful–a shared vision to better their community. While Owen is slaying dragons that destroy lives, Siobhan is slaying attitudes that prevent change.
I think the most exciting thing about The Story of Owen is that it’s Johnston’s first novel. And I hear she is writing another one. Right now. Wonderful! Middle school and high school students need more books like this one. And so do I.