Review: Burn by Patrick Ness – Dragons, Prophecies, and the Cycle of Violence

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Title: Burn
Author:
Patrick Ness
Publisher:
Quill Tree Books

Genre(s): YA Fantasy, Historical Fiction
Subject(s)/Themes(s): War, Discrimination, Dragons
Representation: Biracial MC, Gay MC

Release Date: June 2nd, 2020
Page Count: 384 (hardback)

Rating: 8.0/10

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On a cold Sunday evening in early 1957, Sarah Dewhurst waited with her father in the parking lot of the Chevron gas station for the dragon he’d hired to help on the farm…

Sarah Dewhurst and her father, outcasts in their little town of Frome, Washington, are forced to hire a dragon to work their farm, something only the poorest of the poor ever have to resort to.

The dragon, Kazimir, has more to him than meets the eye, though. Sarah can’t help but be curious about him, an animal who supposedly doesn’t have a soul but who is seemingly intent on keeping her safe.

Because the dragon knows something she doesn’t. He has arrived at the farm with a prophecy on his mind. A prophecy that involves a deadly assassin, a cult of dragon worshippers, two FBI agents in hot pursuit—and somehow, Sarah Dewhurst herself. 

CW: racism, homophobia, graphic violence, near-assault

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Ah, Patrick Ness. He never goes for the boring, does he? I so admire his drive to create stories that count for something–narratives that serve as pointed commentary on an aspect of society or of human nature, sometimes via non-human characters (he forever has my respect for choosing to tackle an inverted version of Moby Dick from the PoV of whales)–and willingness to branch out into wild genres and concepts. His ideas are like a mystery parfait. A delicious delight to spoon through.

Burn is unlike any of his previous books, yet so entirely like all of his previous books. Bold and imaginative and doesn’t shy away when faced with tough questions, it comes out on the other side with a strong thematic core, even if it does sacrifice a few things along the way.

It’s 1957 and dragons exist in this alternate world, distrusted and looked down on by human society. There have been major conflicts waged between the two groups across history, but all of that is done and out of the way now, with a peace treaty placing the parties in a cold but slightly less hostile relationship.

There is also a Canadian cult that worships said dragons, but not the dragons directly. They instead choose to worship a human proxy who represents the dragon divinity–never mind the fact that the dragons don’t give a toss about humans, cultists or otherwise, and have no voice in electing this pope figure for their own fan club. Then there’s an end-of-the-world prophecy revolving around the protagonist Sarah (it tickles me that the idea of dragons is shrug-worthy in this world, but prophecies and clairvoyance are considered nonsense. I love an alt-fantasy setting with strict rules and boundaries); a sheltered gay assassin named Malcolm who is determined to stop her at any cost; two FBI agents hot on his trail; one red dragon with sandpaper-dry snark; and an examination of inherited hatred, violence, and the human propensity to hurl ourselves into mutual destruction.

And they all work.

Well, mostly.

Most definitely in the first half, which is a stretch of perfect pacing, great character introductions, and a flurry of events that devolve into heartbreak and anger.

I quite loved the main cast of characters–Sarah’s frustration and empathy, her father’s dilemma, Kazimir’s sass, Malcolm’s innocence warring with his cold violence–even though some we don’t see too much of. I found it particularly poignant how Sarah and Malcolm’s storylines are near-mirrors of each other. How both childhoods were shaped by authorities dictating the paths their lives must take, and the boundaries that can’t be crossed, based on what they are and what they are not. And when it comes to good people doing terrible things, morally grey people doing terrible things, and terrible people doing terrible things, the book knows to make you understand what the differences are.

The second half dives deeper into the major themes, and character work takes a backseat as all the plot threads are gathered into one clear moral lesson: that we must be vigilant of how hatred, including self-hatred, curdles and spreads and ricochets across space and time until we can’t even tell where it ends and where it begins. That’s something you can count on with Ness; things like plot and character might skew sideways, but the point of the story never gets lost.

I do think Burn works better if you look at it as a long parable as opposed as your normal YA fiction. There are definitely questions left unanswered by the end, and the characters brush off traumatic events with concerning ease, giving it the feel of a folktale in which things happen and you just have to accept that they do, even though you’re not exactly sure why.

While it’s not favourite story of his, it’s still a strong, memorable entry into his bibliography that had me ruminating for a while after.

 

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Review copy provided by the publisher. All opinions are my own.

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Review: And the Ocean Was Our Sky – Moby Dick Inverted

And the Ocean Was Our Sky

Title: And the Ocean Was Our Sky
Author: Patrick Ness
Publisher: HarperTeen
Release Date: September 4th, 2018
Genre(s) and Subject(s): YA, Fantasy, Retelling
Page Count: 160 (hardcover)
Goodreads

Rating: 8.0/10

 

 

 

 

“Harpoon strapped to my back, swimming along the decks of the great hunting ship Alexandra, our sails catching the currents, the Abyss below us, the ocean our sky.”

Patrick Ness is up there as one of my favourite authors. His books are a heady mix of originality and poignancy and he’s constantly pushing boundaries in the YA speculative field. And even if his ideas don’t always work, the world is made better for having them. He doesn’t like playing safe. And I fucking love that.

And the Ocean Was Our Sky is one of Ness’ stranger creations in which he tackles an inverted retelling of Moby Dick. In someone else’s hands, the story could have easily turned belly-up. But Ness, for the most part, makes it work.

I was curious as to see if he would try to emulate Melville’s prose (to some degree, at least–this is a YA novel after all). And while he does keep the introspective style of Ishmael’s narration, it’s still very much Ness’ writing–lyrical in a quiet kind of way.

Written in first person view from a young whale known as Bathsheba, the story follows a pod of hunting whales, led by Captain Alexandra, as they follow the trail of a legendary man known as “Toby Wick” (Yes, it’s kind of silly. And yes, I laughed when I first saw it). As in our world, humans have been hunting whales for hundreds of generations. But in this world, the whales fight back. In this world, the whales are also the hunters. Humans kill whales and sell their parts for profit. And whales take human body parts and sell them to rich whales as trophies and fake remedies. It’s a perpetual cycle of conflict and animosity and there’s little sign of it stopping.

In this story, the whales live physically upside-down from what we’re familiar with–so the depths of the ocean is their “sky” and the air is their “abyss.” It’s an interesting detail and metaphor-wise, I loved it, as it presents the whale and human as reflections of one another. It’s poetic and haunting and asks who the real monsters are in this conflict. Story-wise, however, I did find it a little strange (Does gravity not work the same way in this world?)

And that more or less sums up my feeling on this book. I adored the themes and the metaphors and the way Ness presents them (and the simple pencil illustrations scattered throughout the story enhance the beauty of these messages). Plot and character-wise, I was left wanting a little more. While I enjoyed the pragmatism of young Bathsheba, the side characters are underdeveloped and I felt emotionally disconnected from them. Most disappointingly, Captain Alexandra doesn’t have the same allure as her Melville counterpart and just comes off as an aggressive bully.

In the end, you’re not going to get robust worldbuilding, intricate character development, or an in-depth explanation of this whale society. What you are going to get is a complex allegory on the power of prophecies and beliefs and the idea that we are sometimes too eager to create the monsters that we so fear.

Not my favourite Ness book, but intelligent and enjoyable nonetheless.

Copy provided by the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review

Undertaking the Heroine’s Journey in Fantasy Books

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The Hero’s Journey. We all know it. We’ve seen it played out countless times–from the classic Greek myths to more modern stories like Star Wars, The Lord of the Ring, Eragon, and the game Journey.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell was the first to propose the archetype. Seeing a common pattern across various mythologies, he suggested the term “monomyth” and broke it down into 17 stages. The gist? Hero receives a quest (usually by some higher being) and leaves the comfort of his home to venture out into the wide world. The hero encounters a mentor and a ragtag band of companions on the way and, through a series of tests, becomes stronger. He succeeds in his goal and returns to the mundane world to share his wisdom and power.

Okay. Simple enough. But what about the Heroine’s Journey?

What about the experiences that pertain to women? Because while the hero’s journey can be undergone by anyone, it has a definite masculine taste and is most often associated with male characters. I mean, one of the stages is named “The Woman As Temptress.” (*raises eyebrow*)

Many people scoffed at the mere notion of a heroine’s journey. Campbell himself had reportedly said in an interview, “Women don’t need to make the journey. In the whole mythological journey, the woman is there. All she has to do is realize that she’s the place that people are trying to get to.” (Which, if true, is enough to make you sprain your eyeballs from rolling them so hard).

Undeterred, women in the past couple of decades have come forward with their own model of the heroine’s journey. But my absolute favourite would have to be Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s interpretation, as outlined in her book, 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters.

The Heroine's Journey Chart

“The feminine journey is a journey in which the hero gathers the courage to face death and endure the transformation toward being reborn as a complete being in charge of her own life.”

The gist of Schmidt’s version is this: the protagonist starts out living in what they believe is a perfect life. Then something, or someone, shatters their bubble. They are yanked away from their former life–either literally or metaphorically–and they realize they must take some kind of action. Trials and tribulations follow and they fall into some dark times but crawl out of it in the end with the help of others. Fears and baddies are faced, the day is won, and the heroine returns home with a better understanding of themselves and the world.

The important difference between this and the hero’s journey is that the heroine, at some point in their journey, has to fall (Stage 6 – Death). A moment where everything goes to hell and the heroine is left dejected, defeated, and lost. Then, in stage 7 (Support), they realize that they can’t do this alone, that it’s okay to accept the help of others. This is a reaffirming of bonds between the heroine and their companion(s). And with it comes newfound strength and resolve to face their fears.

Another major difference is that the ultimate goal of a Heroine’s Journey isn’t external. It’s not the search of the holy grail or the defeating of a big bad evil. It’s a wholly personal one–an exploration of the inner self; the acceptance of one’s strengths; the proving of oneself to oneself. All that happens on the way, like facing a big bad evil, are just stepping stones.

It’s a story structure that I find myself loving more and more as I grow older. So today I showcase some fantasy stories that I think are great examples of this archetype (note: as with the hero’s journey, heroine’s journey can be undergone by anyone regardless of gender):

1. The Fitz and the Fool Trilogy by Robin Hobb

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The life of FitzChivalry Farseer as a whole can be seen as a heroine’s journey, but I think the structure is most easily evident in the final trilogy. In Fool’s Assassin, Fitz starts out with his loving wife and his adopted children in their beautiful country estate. But, as you learn learn throughout the course of the Realm of the Elderlings series, nothing is ever easy. Things–bad, terrible things–happen and Fitz must undertake his most harrowing journey yet. Fitz has never been able to easily accept love and help from those around him, and his struggles to find himself in a world that is so confusingly hostile has always been the main focus of the series for me. These struggles remain up until the very end of Assassin’s Fate, a point in which all truths are revealed and the circle is closed shut.

2. Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier

Daughter of the ForestMost of Juliet Marillier’s stories fit the bill, honestly, but Daughter of the Forest remains my favourite of hers. Sorcha is the only daughter in the Sevenwaters family. Though ignored by her father, she is wholly loved by her six brothers and her life at the Sevenwaters estate is more or less idyllic. Then a jealous stepmother steps into the picture and turns her brothers into swans. This curse will only be broken if Sorcha can make six shirts out of nettle plants and remain silent through the duration of the task. Thus begins her quest– an arduous one with many enemies and many friends.

It’s worth noting that while she finds love and support in Red, the British lord who finds her and takes her to Britain, at no point does he swoop in and carry her on his back. The journey is all Sorcha’s–all the pain and losses and tribulations. But while her inner strength is ultimately hers to uncover, it’s not done without the help of a warm hand holding onto hers.

3. Uprooted by Naomi Novik

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Uprooted tells the tale of Agnieszka who is unwitting taken from the comfort of her small village to the home of the Dragon, a powerful wizard who keeps the valley safe from the dark forces of the Woods. In her journey, Agnieszka transforms from an awkward village girl who is ignorant of her magical gifts to a young woman with confidence in her abilities and the knowledge that compassion and understanding are some of the greatest weapons one can have in the face of hatred and anger.

4. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

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There’s no sweeping epic journey in A Monster Calls. At least, not of a physical kind–most of the story is set either in the protagonist’s house or his grandmother’s. But emotionally, it is a tale to rival any epic fantasy.

Connor is thirteen years old and dealing with the fact that his mother has terminal cancer and that a tree monster has taken to visiting him at night. The monster makes a deal: it will tell Connor three stories and at the end of the third, Connor will tell his own.

It’s a strange and sad story. And what I love most about it is that, at the end of it all, Connor’s main support comes from the unlikeliest of places.

Letting go can be a form of strength. And Connor’s journey is about realizing that.

 

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I’m always on the lookout for stories that follow this pattern–and there are a lot of them out there–so feel free to comment with your recommendations and suggestions for other books (of any genre) that you would include on this list.

 

Top 5 Wednesday – Auto-Buy SFF Authors

“Top 5 Wednesday” is a weekly meme currently hosted on Goodreads by Sam of Thoughts on Tomes, where you list your top 5 for the week’s chosen topic. This week’s theme is: your auto-buy authors that write SFF.

I used to buy a lot of books on their release date without reading samples or consulting reviews. But I racked up enough buyer’s remorse to be a lot pickier about them nowadays. The following are authors whose books I’ll not only auto-buy, but buy (sometimes multiple) physical copies of.

1. Pat Rothfuss

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Pat has only published two novels and The Adventures of the Princess and Mr. Whiffle (which is an…experience and a category in itself) in the past 10 years, which might be considered low compared to some on this list. But his writing style makes my brain cells do happy little jigs. There are so few epic fantasies that laud such lyrical prose while still being entertaining and addicting–like vegetables and junk food all in one–so his books are always a must-buy.

2. N.K. Jemisin

N.K. Jemisin

Jemisin never fails to bring something different and important to fantasy with each book that she writes–an Egyptian-inspired setting, bi/pan-sexual gods, a mostly PoC cast, polyamory, and plots that brim with righteous anger. Her books remind me just why I love this genre so much.

3. Patrick Ness

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Another Patrick! Ness’ SFF stories never fail to be unique and/or emotionally gutwrenching. I read through the Chaos Walking trilogy more times than I could count and his work has only gotten better and better.

4. Seth Dickinson

Seth Dickinson
Okay, so the guy has published one book to date (with a second coming in Fall), but The Traitor Baru Cormorant whisked me up to the highest of heavens, smiled, and dropped me like sack of rocks. Years later, I’m still rummaging on the ground, trying to pick up the pieces of my body. If that’s not a great first impression, I don’t know what is. I’ll buy anything that Seth writes.

5. Robin Hobb

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And, of course, the Queen of Fantasy. I dream of one day writing a book that contains even 1% of the magic that her stories have. If tomorrow Robin Hobb decides that she wants to write Dickensian erotica starring anthropomorphic animals, I will support her all the way and smash the pre-order button to smithereens. Because Hobb at her worst is better than many at their best.

 

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And there you have it! Do you see any of your favourites featured on the list? And tell me some of your auto-buy authors!