Cold War Dragons and Everyday Magic: Review of Burn by Patrick Ness
Burn. Patrick Ness. Quill Tree Books, 2020.
At its best, speculative fiction is a wonderfully paradoxical genre. Amidst the vibrant worldbuilding and lore lies an ability to poignantly reflect on issues pertaining to the real world. So, when I picked up Patrick Ness’s Burn, promoted as a story set during the Cold War—but with dragons—I expected, based on Ness’s track record, that the most intriguing aspects of the plot would have very little to do with mystical fire-breathing beings. I was not disappointed, though I was not prepared for the book’s thoughtful and oftentimes heart-breaking ruminations on identity and family.
Burn is set in rural Frome, Washington, 1957. As the town responds to the ever-escalating rhetoric of the Cold War, Sarah Dewhurst and her father meet with Kazimir, a dragon hired to help out on their farm, a deal necessitated by their poverty and desperation. Kazimir appears to be a stoic and detached worker, but his motivations for helping the Dewhursts center on a prophecy involving a deadly assassin, a mysterious cult of dragon worshippers, two FBI agents trying to crack the trail of violence left behind, and Sarah herself.
If that sounds like a lot to juggle, it would be—in the hands of a lesser author. Staying true to the political intrigue and uncertainty of the time, Ness masterfully balances every moving part of this unfolding prophetic conspiracy. There is an obvious admiration for the history of the genre in the more fantastical parts of the story. The prophecy draws on traditions as old as the Oracle at Delphi, while Kazimir appears to have the best qualities of friendly communicating dragons from The Neverending Story to Eragon and fares well in comparison to draconic cousins in more recent works such as Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw, Walter Moers’s The City of Dreaming Books, or Gabe Hudson’s Gork, the Teenage Dragon. There is even a delightful subversion of Eustace Scrubb’s transformation from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
Where the story really shines, however, is in its intimate moments. Its characters are outcasts, not because of their roles in the prophecy but because of the prejudices baked into the time period. Sarah is a biracial Black teenager growing up in segregationist USA with only her (white) father for family. Targeted regularly by local law enforcement, she not only has to deal with racist abuse but must also come to terms with grief at the loss of her mother—and the unspoken loss of her connection to her Black heritage. Thus, she faces ostracization for her skin while being unable to tap into the culture and comfort of its community.
Sarah’s bond with neighbour Jason Inagawa is in no small part due to their shared experience of being outcasts. The novel deals with Jason’s own trauma—growing up in the US internment camps for Japanese-Americans during World War II—with great empathy, and it’s yet another reminder of how nostalgia for the “good old days” only exists for white folks. Kazimir himself is no stranger to distrust and xenophobia. A blue dragon, his lineage is traced to Russia, making his fantastical monstrous self a clear proxy for Cold War anxieties around Soviet infiltrators. Coming together lets all three work through their emotional baggage, all the while engaging in mundane activities like schoolwork, farming, and working at the local diner.
Characters outside Sarah’s immediate bubble also get developed backstories, treated with care in Ness’s hands. The aforementioned assassin, Malcolm, has been brainwashed by a manipulative cult from a young age. He begins to come into his own during his quest, connecting with a kindly Guatemalan who offers to give him a lift. As they travel together, the two explore their queerness—both knowing what it means to be unwanted, they find solace in each other’s arms. Meanwhile, FBI Agent Woolf deals with a hidden dilemma while battling the sexism and distrust endemic to her colleagues in law enforcement.
Ness crafts each of these stories with a deft and gentle touch. It is a testament to the depth of his characters that conversations over breakfast and quiet embraces in the night are more impactful than Tarantino-esque car chases fueled by dragon fire. Not that the action feels out of place: the pacing is pitch-perfect, and the more obviously explosive upheavals push the plot forward and raise the stakes for characters we have come to love and care about. (With an upcoming television adaptation having just been announced, I hope that the spectacle of the set pieces do not overshadow the intimate moments on screen.)But the true star of the book remains Ness’s commitment to telling very human stories in an extraordinary setting. The title references both dragons and the danger of nuclear war, but the warmth and passion that drive the story come from the hearts of its characters. It is refreshing and increasingly important for writers like Ness to shine a spotlight on lives that are often left out of speculative fiction, especially in Western period pieces. Burn humanizes identities that have too often been erased or relegated to exotic tropes—a must-read for an era when fear of nebulous “others from the outside” has permeated society once again.
Ibtisam Ahmed (he/him) is a queer Bangladeshi immigrant living and studying in the UK. He is completing a PhD at the University of Nottingham, titled “The Decolonial Killjoy,” and his research focuses on utopianism, decolonisation, queer theory, race and justice, and cultural politics. He is involved with several activist groups and campaigns dedicated to fighting queerphobia in his home country, his host country, and in the Commonwealth. A long-term sf, fantasy, and superhero nerd, he delights in meaningful representation and loves to uplift marginalized voices in his work. He tweets at @Ibzor.
This review was commissioned by editor Sean Guynes on October 31, 2020. The author and editor are mutual acquaintances through shared scholarly networks. No review copy was arranged.