Book Review | Burn

Maybe my standards for dragon books are too high, because I have yet to find the Great One. Still, this was entertaining enough.

Patrick Ness’ novel Burn is a young adult fantasy about an alternate universe during the Cold War. Here, dragons have existed forever and are a part of life, if an aloof and mysterious part. Having them close isn’t viewed as a status view among humans, though, so when Sarah Dewhurst and her father are forced to hire a dragon to work on their farm, it is just another thing that sets them apart from the rest of their small town. But the dragon, Kazimir, has a secret, which has ramifications for Sarah and all the humans. Meanwhile, FBI agents track an assassin from a dragon-worshipping cult. All these characters are on a collision course, but the results will be far from what they expected.

I have to say, so far as I had any expectations, this book did not go in the direction I imagined it would. There is a lot going on, and sadly, not as much dragon action as I wanted. They are dragons; they deserve to have the most “screen time,” okay? (See above comment about my dragon book standards.)

I liked Sarah as a protagonist well enough, and her relationship to Kazimir was my favorite part of this book. Actually, Kazimir was my favorite part, which will surprise no one if you’ve read this blog for a while/know me personally. He is just so cool, though I wish he’d had more depth to his characters. In fact, all the characters could have had more development. 

This is not to say I didn’t like the other characters. Agent Dernovich was a fairly typical secret agent type, but added a “catch me if you can” element that I appreciated. I also loved Jason Inagawa, not only for the somewhat rare representation of Japanese Americans in literature, but also because he’s so sweet and caring. As with Kazimir, I wanted to see more done with Jason.

The story Burn presents is a complex one, involving prophecies and magic and all the complex tensions of the Cold War. This is an America just after the horrors of World War II, shown especially in the racism sometimes exhibited toward Jason and Sarah. But this is also an America fueled by anxiety about Russia, shown in the humans’ treatment of Kazimir, a dragon from Russia. With all this going on, some of the dragon-y elements have to take a back seat, so when they are brought to the front, it feels a bit convenient and sudden. Everything we learn in the second half of the book, I feel could have been presented at a different time, perhaps in a better way.

Overall, I just feel like this book doesn’t go far enough into anything as it could have. The lore of dragons, the characters, even the action, doesn’t feel explored enough. I think the book should have been longer and… just, more.

In the end, though, Burn isn’t a bad book. It presents some intriguing ideas about dragons and magic and universes not unlike, but far from identical to, our own. The characters are diverse without feeling like tokens, and the twisting story did keep my attention. But for me, it was a little lackluster and should have pushed the envelope a bit. However, if you like dragons or alternate history fantasy, this is still worth a read.

Overall rating: 7.8/10

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