CM . . .
. Volume XXI Number 2. . . .September 12, 2014
The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim is an incredible debut novel for E.K. Johnston. Set in an alternate reality where dragons are real, eat humans, and are drawn to carbon emissions like moths are drawn to flames; and where dragon slaying is a noble profession passed down from generation to generation, the story sucks you quickly into its version of our world. The titular dragon slayer, Owen Thorksgard, moves to the town of Trondheim with his family after his aunt, Lottie, suffers a severe injury while slaying a dragon in Toronto. The whole Thorksgard family: Lottie and her wife Hannah, a highly skilled sword maker, and Owen’s father, Aodhan, set up shop outside of Trondheim, bringing protection from dragon attacks to a rural area of southern Ontario that hasn’t had a resident dragon slayer in decades.
At school, Owen befriends Siobhan McQuaid, an academically-minded dedicated musician who has never run with the popular crowd. What begins as tutoring to help Owen in the classes he struggles in quickly becomes something more: Lottie wants Siobhan to be Owen’s bard, to record his heroics in song as was traditional hundreds of years ago. It turns out that the move to Trondheim was actually a very political move by the Thorksgard family who want dragon slaying to return more to how it was in centuries past, a time when a dragon slayer would protect where he or she lived, not for money or recognition but because it is the right thing to do. As of right now, dragon slayers live almost exclusively in cities, wooed by high-paying corporate contracts from oil companies, with a severely understaffed RCMD (Royal Canadian Mounted Dragonslayers) serving all the communities too small to have a corporate dragon slayer to protect them and their property. As the school year progresses, Owen, Lottie, and Siobhan organize what basically amounts to a dragon-fighting militia of high school students to combat increasing attacks in town and on school grounds. A conspiracy theory of new dragon hatching grounds turns out to have more behind it than off-the-wall theories, and a plan is formed for Owen and Siobhan, with the help of most of the town, to go on a quest to destroy the hatching grounds. Going after this hatching ground without official government backup leads to the biggest adventure for Owen and Siobhan, with a bittersweet ending I won’t ruin here.
In addition to all this action, Siobhan and Owen’s relationship grows like a genuine friendship. So often in YA literature there cannot be a male-female friendship without some underlying romantic tension, a tension which is nowhere near the reality for so many of the teenagers who will be reading these books. As a teenager, many of my best friends were boys, and seeing genuine friendships like the ones I experienced growing up was refreshing. With the current YA market full of supernatural romance, dystopian futures, and high school romance, The Story of Owen is a much-needed breath of fresh air. This is a true adventure story and hero’s quest, full of engaging action sequences and political messages. Hannah, for example, is an American who chose to leave her country, in a world where loyalty to your country is more important than almost anything else, because her sexual orientation and relationship with Lottie meant she couldn’t serve in her nation’s army. Lottie is trying to take larger and larger steps to move away from dragon slayers being concentrated in cities and lured by money towards a world where, no matter where a person lives, they will have protection from dragon attacks and won’t have to live in constant fear that their car will lure a dragon attacker to their home. These messages arise organically and are never to blunt or on the nose to take the reader out of the story.
The Story of Owen is an excellent book for a wide range of ages. It’s interesting and complex without dealing with issues too mature for tweens who are reading far beyond their grade level. It’s written from the perspective of a smart, strong female character without even falling into typical ‘girly’ things that could turn boys off from reading it. It has interesting political and ideological commentary for those who want to read at a deeper level, and there’s an awesome dragon-fighting underdog story for those just looking for an adventure. In short, The Story of Owen has the ability to appeal to a broad audience and is unlikely to disappoint anyone who picks it up.
The Story of Owen is an easy recommendation to make on the YA fiction shelf. Set in an alternate reality that is basically our world, only where dragons are real (and Shakespeare wrote fantasy where dragons never existed), The Story of Owen is the answer to many reader’s advisory questions that are hard to fulfill in the current market. Want a story with a strong female character with no unnecessary romantic subplot? Check. What about a touch of fantasy without the driving conflict centering about children being killed for amusement? Done. Absolutely tired of dystopian futures and evil government conspiracies? None of those here. In short, E.K. Johnston filled a gap in the market, and filled it in a spectacular way. The Story of Owen is an absolute must-read.
Susie Wilson holds an MLIS from the University of Alberta. She works, lives, and spends entirely too much time reading in Prince George, BC.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.