Book Review: The Story of Owen, Dragonslayer of Trondheim

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: ** (2 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars_

Overall: *** (3/5 stars)

Age range recommendation: 11 and up.

I read The Story of Owen in the more restful hours of my recent trip to New York City, and while I had a fun time joining Owen and Siobhan on their dragon slaying adventures, much of the plot has since escaped from my memory. (It’s possible that too many oysters distracted me.) So this will be just a few notes on what I liked about The Story of Owen, what I didn’t love, and why I’ve recommended it to some young people I know even though they don’t all love dragons. (A disclaimer: I went through a big ol’ fiery dragon phase in my middle school years. So huzzah!)

This is not a book I came across during some aimless shelf browsing. I read The Book Smugglers’ review a while ago and ordered it immediately. (Local bookstores will order Canadian YA-Ballads about modern mythical creatures if you ask them nicely.) I have a lot of faith in those ladies’ reviews; even if I don’t form the same opinions in my own reading, they highlight some real treasures I might otherwise neglect. The hardcover languished in a pile at my childhood home for months, though, until it finally struck me as the perfect epic-but-fun pastime for the train ride to the city. Ana’s review goes into better depth than this in analyzing the story and characters, so do give it a read. While I’m not equally as enamored with the book, I did find it to be refreshingly unique, so thanks to them for bringing E.K. Johnston’s work to my attention.

In brief, the story is told by Siobhan, a fairly-average high school student living in a small, rural Canadian town. Her town didn’t have a dragon slayer – they tend to hang around the big cities where there are more carbon emissions, and therefore more dragons, so the pay and publicity are better. When Lottie Thorskard and her family move to town, people can’t stop talking about the famous retired dragon slayer and her legacy. It’s a family business, so while her brother Aodhan defends farms and small businesses from fiery doom, Lottie trains her nephew Owen to take up the sword of duty. Siobhan trains Owen in Algebra, which is less epic but also necessary, and he’s way worse at math than he is at stabbing a dragon in exactly the right place to avoid toxic death-spillage. When the Thorskgards learn that Siobhan is a talented musician, they decide to bring back the old Bard traditions from the olden days of dragon slaying, when a tale well-told and just the right song could turn a slayer’s deeds from action into legend. So begins a friendship and partnership between Owen and Siobhan that will give them strength to face the whirlwind of high school and, hopefully, the dangers of ravenous monsters. They need to get heroic fast, too, because the dragons are getting bolder, and one Thorskard isn’t going to be enough to defend the people of Trondheim. A noble tradition of millenia is getting shaken up with the modern times, and Siobhan might have to do more than write songs about it.

Things I liked:

– The narrative style is framed in the ballad format that Siobhan is learning as she stumbles through the motions of becoming Owen’s bard. I love the old sagas and oral histories, though they can get dry and plodding sometimes, so even the use of “Listen!” to begin a tale gave me a nerdy thrill. (For curious nerds: an article on how we may have misinterpreted the “hwæt!” as “listen!” in Beowulf.) Siobhan’s talent is music composition, not storytelling, so her conversational prose interspersed with dramatic retellings was appropriately awkward until she improved with practice. The use of music to convey a mood was a cool touch, too, though I’m not so good at imagining tunes and therefore felt a stronger connection to the old fashioned use of words. Listen!, indeed.

– The characters. All of them. And their interactions with each other. Siobhan and Owen, thrown together in the high school hallway, forge such a real friendship through tutoring sessions, near-death experiences, and indeed pizza cooked in a blacksmith’s forge. Lottie Thorskgard basically raises her nephew while training him to be a great dragon slayer like she was before her accident. It’s an unusual family, one I totally want to be a part of: Owen, Lottie, her wife Hannah, Aodhan, and Siobhan watching them all from the kitchen table. (There’s a really sweet scene about how happy Lottie and Hannah get whenever he refers to them as his parents.) Another example of good characterization: the teens’ classmates have hidden depths and defy the stereotypical roles they seem to fill at first. One girl decides to take Siobhan under her wing and teach her how to be socially popular, but her motives are much more interesting than one might expect. Then there’s a fun conspiracy nut and his daughter, who don’t give a crap about anyones’ opinions. These all felt like people I could easily meet in real life, if it weren’t for the fact that they kept talking about dragons.

– This isn’t necessarily a comedy, but there was lots of humor in the dialogue and Siobhan’s narration. That’s how I like my epic tales: full of sarcasm and stupid misunderstandings. Nothing lightens the tension of facing off against a creature that wants to eat your car like a well timed joke in a shaking voice.

Things I didn’t like so much:

– The bigger plot, the one about politics and geography and the history of dragons in our world, never really captured my full interest. In school and regular conversation, people learn about Oil Watch, and how industrialization has made the dragon problem even worse, but even though the stakes were high (whole cities get abandoned, and the outcomes of wars have hinged on dragon territories) the tension wasn’t nearly so compelling as the smaller personal story taking place amongst the residents of Trondheim. The characters and conversation were easily enough to keep me entertained while I read, but I didn’t get overly concerned about what might happen next, so this wasn’t one of those books that kept me in its thrall whenever I put it down.

– The dragons themselves weren’t as cool as they could have been. We get to learn about the different types and what makes them fearsome, but they just seemed like a general plague of beasts for the most part. This didn’t detract from the story at all, I just really like my dragons and would have happily witnessed some more prolonged interactions with them.

-There were these historical interludes in which famous badasses from history were entwined with Johnston’s new dragon mythology.  Despite the creativity, these incidents seemed a little gratuitous to me. I see how they could serve to guide the legendary style of Siobhan’s ballad-telling, but I was jarred out of the story whenever I had to stop and puzzle out how figures such as Dracula and Abelard might get re-written as dragon slayers.

Why I’m recommending The Story Of Owen:

– A kind of nerdy main character who is unapologetic about her talents, unsure what she wants from her future, fond of her family, and honest with her friends. Siobhan is a wonderfully real narrator, one who I think lots of teenage readers could like and admire. The other characters are also flawed and good-hearted; you love them even when you want to give them a shake. It would be so excellent if we could all emulate this, if we could remember to embrace our insecurities and admit that we’re still learning.

– Music geekery for all those band nerds who want better imaginary soundtracks to their every day (and epic) battles.

– A friendship between genders that isn’t romantic! (I may get spoiler-y here if you’re the sort of reader who cares deeply about a will-they-won’t-they plotline. But that’s so not the point of this book) Owen and Siobhan are able to look frankly at their relationship, wonder if any feelings are getting in the way, recognize that no there isn’t any sexual turmoil and move on to killing scaly beasts! Will they get together in the future? Who knows or cares! Owen might date one of the many girls who like their men like they like their coffee: wielding a broadsword. (Or am I the only one with that morning routine?) Siobhan might date, or she might be asexual, or she might get burned to a crisp. Whatever. I’m just happy that the lack of teen romantic drama in this book never once took away from the emotional resonance of the characters’ relationships. Friendship, family, and long-standing love can be just as motivating, and it’s about time we saw more of those loves take center stage. When a younger teen expressed trepidation about trying out some older YA because of all the gross romantic subjects, I was very happy to suggest The Story Of Owen.

Even though the plot and draconian action failed to hold me riveted, I liked taking a peep into a dragon-infested world for a while. Siobhan, Owen, Lottie, and all the good people of Trondheim made up such a welcoming community, I could easily understand the Thorskard’s desire to protect them. Centuries and an ocean away from ye olde peasants and great wyrms of yore, the bravery and sacrifice of dragon slayers still remains the stuff of stories. Now they just have to do history homework on the side.

Book Review: The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: ***** (5 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 out of 5 stars)

I recommend The Game of Love and Death for readers age 14 and up, though there’s nothing particularly terrifying or overtly sexual, so strong younger readers could give it at try, as should grown-ups who enjoyed YA novels like The Book Thief and Code Name Verity.

The Game that Death and Love play against one another is bigger and older than humans can really understand. It’s manipulative, tragic, and cruel. The players they choose – more like pawns – may change with the decades, but Love and Death stay determined to prove how wrong the other one is. If two players choose each other in the end, they live, and Love gets to flaunt the results of his machinations. If they do not, if fate or mishap or the knowledge that someday even their love will die prevents the choice, Death can claim her player. Yes, the Game is slightly stacked in Death’s favor, because she’ll get everyone in the end.

Between Henry and Flora, though, it seems like Love might have a shot at victory. The two young people come from very different backgrounds in late 1930s Seattle. Henry is Love’s player. He grows up with his best friend Ethan Thorne’s wealthy family, playing baseball at school; working hard for a scholarship; and playing the stand-up base in any free moment. Henry helps Ethan (who is probably dyslexic) with writing and reading, especially when they’re out on assignment for Mr. Thorne’s big newspaper.

It’s on such an assignment that Henry meets Flora, the girl chosen by Death. Flora is a pilot who works at the airfield and is determined to win a big aviation race someday. To support herself in the meantime, she sings at the jazz nightclub owned by her uncle and herself. Like Henry, she’s an orphan with more than her fair share of bad luck. Unlike Henry, she’s Black. Flora has known that someday everything she’s worked for, everyone she loves, will crumble and die. She’s known this ever since Death whispered it into her ear while she slept as a baby.

Love and Death can take on alluring guises to interfere in the lives of their players. Love tries to clear their path to each other from any obstacles. Death makes herself a glamorous distraction that’s hard to ignore. The two entities – are they gods? forces of nature? meddlesome angels? – can sew seeds of trust and doubt in humans’ minds. They can turn accidents to their advantages and twist other peoples’ natures to affect Henry and Flora’s lives. But in the end, the two young heroes have to make the choice themselves: when their dreams and futures hang in the balance, will they choose the risk of each other over the security of staying apart?

Much of this book was completely spot on; I read most of it in a solid afternoon and worried about Henry and Flora while I cooked dinner, so I can assuredly declare it an enthralling novel. The time period and setting were enough to get me hooked. The 1930s contain the best of modern and old fashioned adventures: fast cars and Hoovervilles. Prep school woes and the “golden age of aviation.” Ethan Thorne’s father, in particular, expends a lot of concern over all the splashy publicity the Eastern states are getting with their high-speed charge into exciting times, and indeed that’s where most stories I know take place. Reading about the North West’s atmosphere at the time was a fun change.

Of course, certain social issues are magnified by the time period as well. Racism, homophobia, and poverty play a big role in Henry and Flora’s experiences. While Henry’s instant attraction to Flora brings about sneers and remonstrations, Flora’s involvement with a white boy puts her at a greater risk. Violence against Black citizens, vandalism against businesses like her club The Domino, and enforced segregation are everyday problems for Flora. When Henry says, “I’ll go anywhere with you,” she points out that he can go anywhere, while she’s constrained by the prejudices of society and barred from so many situations that he takes for granted.

“Exactly… That’s part of the problem.  You’ll go anywhere.  The world is yours.” (p 236)

Love and Death are equally amoral opposing forces.  Death’s methods may come off as distinctly crueler, but that’s just because she’s had ages to perfect the art of taking lives.  Love’s manipulations can be just as devastating, though his talents lie more in seduction than extermination.  The two entities really do become characters throughout the course of The Game, rather than mere physical embodiments of what we already imagine. Death behaves abominably when she disguises herself as a member of the Thorne household, but we catch glimpses of her gentle loneliness when she collects souls with a touch of sympathy instead of her usual hunger. Love uses his powers to deceive people, but he also truly tries to nurture honesty and self-acceptance in someone who needs understanding.  They keep each other relevant – the need each other to retain their individual meaning – so the interactions between them, though occasionally heavy-handed, illustrate how Love and Death can be inevitable, immortal, and yet keenly personal all the while.  The Game they play only sounds heartless when seen through a mortal lens. Alas that their two chosen mortals are so endearing!  I could have watched the competition like a cool spectator if the players hadn’t stolen my heart.

And it’s the mortal details which make the book so fun to read, even amongst big and little tragedies.  Drives in the darkness, rain on a baseball field, the hidden stitches in a grandmother’s quilt: Martha Brockenbrough writes as though she has personally walked alongside her characters and seen every nook and cranny of their lives.  The way Flora loves her jazz club comes through in a description of how it seems full of people at night, compared to the peeling paint and theatrical facades that are exposed in the light of day.  I could feel Henry’s misery at the newspaper’s print room, Ethan’s nerves and excitement when visiting the ramshackle shanty town in secret, even the rain in the air when Flora and Henry had to huddle together under one umbrella.  As much as Love and Death try to direct the characters’ lives, the setting and time period give them an ideal stage.  The writing style here isn’t ornate or even particularly beautiful, but it captures the scenes exactly and lets each human character come to life.

My one gripe is that the climax and resolution of The Game veer away from these wonderful concrete details and soar off too high without ballast.  For the majority of the story, Love and Death are able to enact the metaphysical aspects of their competition within realistic limitations.  Flora and Henry aren’t told that they’re pawns, just as so many other lovers over the centuries thought they were acting of their own accord.  When, in the book’s final quarter, the parameters of the Game start to blur for each player, I felt myself slipping away from total immersion and pausing to think critically about a sudden onslaught of emotionally charged reactions.  What had been, to me, an excellent historical YA novel with some elements of fantasy and romance, took a steep turn when the magical interference appeared more obviously from behind the scenes.  It’s certainly compelling to watch feelings of love and the fear of death clash, but I wish that the eventual showdown could have been described in such visionary precision as the first 3/4 of the novel.

That one dip in the story’s trajectory aside, I really liked The Game of Love and Death.  The playing of The Game itself isn’t nearly so important as the honest and complicated tangles in Flora’s and Henry’s lives, and the strength they each show in trying to help each other through every calamity.  There are times when I couldn’t blame one or the other for thinking that they might be best apart, but that didn’t stop me from insisting (quite vocally) that they try to struggle on side-by-side despite the odds.  This was not one of those love stories in which one person completes the other: they are very much secure in their own identities, thank goodness.  Instead, it’s a bittersweet illustration of how death, and love, and fate, and chance are a part of everyone’s lives. No matter what steps we may take to try and out-run them, it might not hurt to let someone stick with you along the way.