________________ CM . . . . Volume XXII Number 17. . . .January 8, 2016


Prairie Fire.

E. K. Johnston.
Minneapolis, MN: Carolrhoda Lab (Distributed in Canada by Monarch Books of Canada Ltd.), 2015.
297 pp., hardcover & pdf, $21.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-4677-3909-2 (hc.), ISBN 978-1-4677-6181-9 (pdf).

Subject Headings:
Adventures and adventurers-Fiction.
Bards and bardism-Fiction.
High schools-Fiction.
Family life-Canada-Fiction.

Grades 8 and up / Ages 13 and up.

Review by Susie Wilson.

**** /4



When Lieutenant Porter said “It’s our busy season,” what he’d really meant was “Shit, there are dragons everywhere. Duck.” I know this, because that’s what he said the next morning, as he was hustling us out of the mess hall while the sound of alarms filled the air. That last part was directed at Annie, who was about as tall as Owen and had walked under the short part of the arched doorway into the dragon shelter without realizing she was about to knock her head.

This shelter was quite different from any I had ever been in before. For starters, it was above-ground, which I knew because there were also windows, presumably dragon-proofed, as much as that was possible. When I looked out of them, I could see the grey-washed cityscape of Fort Calgary, punctuated by the totem poles. We hadn’t been able to see much of it the night before. I knew that Calgary had a strict building code: no wood, no green, no exposed lines or wires – nothing that burned – but seeing it in the daylight was something else entirely. Fort Calgary was a military base, with very few non-essential personnel. Even most of the practice courts were covered. When people talk about the “concrete jungle,” they usually imagine cities with interestingly-shaped buildings and telephone poles. This was more of a concrete wasteland. Said wasteland was currently under attack by a brilliant purple dragon, similar in size to a lakus, but apparently much faster.


E. K. Johnston returns for the most part triumphantly with Prairie Fire, the sequel to The Story of Owen: Dragonslayer of Trondheim. Readers return to Trondheim a few months after the events in The Story of Owen, just as Siobhan, Owen, and Sadie are to embark on their next venture, that of joining the Oil Watch. Readers learn a bit more of the repercussions of Owen and Siobhan’s successful attack on the dragon breeding ground located on Manitoulin Island. They were successful, the government (headed by an unnamed but definitely unliked conservative Prime Minister) is not at all pleased with either their actions or their ever-growing internet fan base, and the burns to Siobhan’s hands have left her unable to play any instrument other than the bugle. Other than that, much is the same as the first installment. Owen and Siobhan are still the only dragonslayer-bard duo of their kind in modern time, dragons are still tirelessly attracted to carbon emissions, which they typically follow to a tasty human or livestock based meal, and Owen’s family are bucking the modern tradition of dragonslayers taking lucrative corporate contracts in big cities and are instead defending Trondheim and the surrounding area with only the goodwill of the citizens as payment.

     The same political commentary woven through The Story of Owen is present in Prairie Fire, examining a number of controversial issues from Canada’s (and the world’s) past and present in this alternative present filled with dragons. Countless Chinese immigrants died building the railroad across Canada, but in this version of reality, it was the Chinook, the largest, fastest, most fearsome and nearly impossible to kill dragon which inhabits the Rocky Mountains which is responsible for the casualties (I have to say, I hope this version of Canada has its own dragon-filled Heritage Minutes, because I would pay good money to see them). During Hurricane Katrina, the US military brought in contract dragon slayers and clean-up crews to aid the army, many of whom left civilians to suffer and die because saving them was not part of their contract. Most notably and timely, however, is Canada’s problematic reliance on temporary foreign workers. Dragon clean-up crews, responsible for safely disposing of dragon corpses and their incredibly toxic blood, are no longer full Oil Watch members, but contracted foreign workers, mostly from the Philippines. While some of this commentary is tongue-in-cheek and engaging (I am quite fond of the alternative NDP, where the ‘D’ now stands for Dragonslayer), at times the political overtones in this book were a little on the nose and heavy-handed for a reader who is well aware of the current state of affairs. For the intended audience, however, there’s just enough real Canadian history and policy mixed in with the situations in the book that an otherwise politically uninformed teenager could be drawn to investigate what has and is happening in the real Canada that mirrors the issues in these books.

     Siobhan, Owen, and Sadie successfully complete basic training, only to receive devastating postings. Sadie is sent to the North Sea where she will have to learn to fight dragons in coastal and sea battles instead of anywhere she could use her well-developed skills from training with Owen in Northern Ontario. Owen and Siobhan are sent to Fort Calgary, AB, which is a posting used as punishment by the Oil Watch. While other postings are typically to defend oil reserves in war and dragon-torn climes, with tons of exciting action and experience for dragon slayers and their support squads, Fort Calgary is a posting in conflict-free Alberta. This is also the point in the narrative where it begins to seem almost as if there is much more story than the book tells readers. While readers know why Owen and Siobhan are relegated to Fort Calgary, they never learn what Nick and Kaori, the other two dragonslayers sent to this less than prestigious posting, did to earn the dislike of either their home governments or the Oil Watch.

     After a devastating Chinook attack at Fort Calgary, a number of farmers displaced from their nearby communities by the destruction make their home temporarily in Fort Calgary. Owen had been sent to Hinton to guard the Alberta side of the train tunnel through the Rockies, but he is without his support squad who are tasked with aiding with clean-up in Fort Calgary. Siobhan is assigned as the liaison between the farmers and the military personnel in the Fort. As her internet fame precedes her, Siobhan is an instant hit with the farmers, and within that supportive community she begins to regain her relationship with music. It no longer matters that her hands won’t play many instruments, or that she is unable to easily write out music; this community rallies around her and helps her to write her first song since joining the Oil Watch. Eventually they travel to Port Edward, on the coast of British Columbia, to work in the hometown of one of the farmers, escorted by Nick, Owen, and their support crews. Once there, readers get an all too brief glimpse into the traditional dragonslaying done by the Haida people.

After safely escorting the displaced farmers to Port Edward Owen, Siobhan and the rest of the support crew return to Fort Calgary. They are then sent up to the forests north of Grand Prairie to maintain the firebreaks between areas of forest owned by different logging companies. While this seems like an incredibly boring posting, it is here that a devastating attack takes place, leading to a poignant, hopeful, and heartbreaking ending (I won’t say any more lest I spoil it, but the ending is incredible and unexpected, and definitely worth reading without any further knowledge).

     Prairie Fire is a strong sequel, even though it does falter in a place or two. It has incredibly smart political and historical commentary. It remains vague enough to not become too dated as it is read for years to come while being sharp enough that anyone aware of the political and social climate in which it was written knows exactly what is being talked about. Its story of leaving teenage years for adulthood, complete with the bravery and sacrifice required, will appeal to teenagers and adults alike. I again applaud E. K. Johnston for telling these incredible stories with the voice of a strong female narrator and including normal friendships that don’t always spiral into drama-filled romantic relationships. Prairie Fire should appeal to all genders and inclinations of teenage readers as it incorporates adventure, fantasy, and social commentary in an incredibly compelling story.

Highly Recommended.

Susie Wilson is a graduate of SLIS at the University of Alberta. She lives, works, and spends tons of time reading in Prince George, BC.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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.
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