Reviewed by Jo Bowers
Burn opens in America, 1957, with the backdrop of the Cold War. However, the setting is an alternate universe as it starts with dragons too and ends in another world.
It opens on a Sunday evening at the parking lot of a gas station on the outskirts of the town Frome, Washington. Sixteen-year-old, Sarah, is waiting there with her father for a dragon, a Russian Blue, who he has just hired to help on his farm. We learn quickly that this is no ordinary dragon, as it is a dragon with a name, Kazimir, who talks and who takes payment for work. Sarah is drawn to Kazimir, who also seems to be intent on keeping an eye on Sarah too when he saves her and her friend Jason from the racist police deputy of the town, Kelby.
It is from here the story opens out more as Kazmir it seems has arrived not just to work on the farm, but to protect Sarah. She is part of a prophecy and must avoid being killed by Malcolm, an assassin and Believer, belonging to a dragon-worshipping cult. All this unfolds as each chapter moves between three narratives: the setting of Frome and Sarah’s world, Malcolm making his journey to Sarah and another storyline of the two FBI agents out looking for Malcolm. The narratives and characters eventually converge, and it is at here that we enter into another world with Sarah, Kazimir and the others then on a fast-moving mission to save it.
This is an exciting and complex story, with a myth at its core and surprising with plot-twists that had me saying ‘no way’ to myself more than once. Patrick Ness writes action-packed scenes alongside tender relationships developing with incredible expertise. It is through the relationships in the novel that themes of racism, homophobia, identity and grief are explored. This is 1950s America, but we see it from the viewpoint of being gay or from mixed heritage. The central characters all suffer prejudice: Sarah Dewhurst is from mixed heritage and is in love with Jacob, the only Japanese boy in her school; Nelson is a Guatemalan Canadian. As a reader, we are aware of the racial tension throughout. Nelson is also rejected by his family when they find out he is gay, and Malcolm and Nelson both suffer prejudice for their sexuality.
While we are talking characters, Kazimir, both as a dragon and boy, is perhaps the most complex character of all, who allows us to think that ’it’s not about the end of the world but about what you do when it does’ (Patrick Ness) and gives the book an ending with a silver lining. FBI Agent Woolf provides the most startling moment and turning point in the book for me and to reveal this in a review would be one spoiler too many!
As well as all the themes mentioned above, this book also opens up questions about religion, war, politics and fanaticism. In fact, this book opened up more questions for me than any book I have read in a long while, one of which is: How do you make a new world? It would be an excellent book to study at KS4 or for any book group reading YA novels.
My advice is read it with no expectations, other than to expect Patrick Ness at his best. When I started reading it, I was trying to attach it to something familiar I had read before to make sense, but once I let that feeling go and gave myself up to the story I felt as though I was flying like a dragon!
If this hasn’t convinced you to read it, then I’ll finish by saying that Burn had hope and bravery running through its core and any book that has this is a book for me.