"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."
This dragon, Kazimir, has more to him than meets the eye. He has arrived at the farm because of a prophecy. A prophecy that involves a deadly assassin, a cult of dragon worshippers, two FBI agents - and somehow, Sarah Dewhurst herself.
I received a proof copy of Burn from Walker Books in exchange for an honest review. Any quotes taken from this copy may be subject to changes in final editions.
Patrick Ness is one of my favourite YA authors. He writes beautifully, his stories are original, and he's not afraid to play with conventions and expectations when it comes to storytelling.
He's also the only author on my auto-buy list whose books I fully expect not to love.
It sounds weird, right? And maybe it is. I guess it comes down to this: with most YA, I'm reading for pleasure; I like the sound of the story, I feel like I can relate to the characters - I just want to escape into another world for a little while. But with Patrick Ness I'm not reading for entertainment. I'm reading to think and feel. Ness is without a doubt the most experimental YA author I've come across and it's his willingness to take risks that sets him apart from everyone else. Of course, it goes without saying that risks don't always pay off and there's certainly a couple of his books I've enjoyed but haven't loved quite as much as I'd hoped.
So where does that leave Burn?
Well... right about here. 👇
It's taken me over a week to write this review because every time I think about Burn, my opinion changes. If you've read it, you probably get where I'm coming from - it's a tricky one to nail down. If you haven't read it, let me attempt to break it down for you. Don't worry - this review will be spoiler-free.
So what's it about?
Burn takes place in an alternative version of our world where dragons and humans co-exist. It's set in 1957 and follows Sarah Dewhurst, a teenage girl from the small town of Frome, Washington, whose life is suddenly upended by the arrival of a dragon hired by her father to help out on the family farm. While humans and dragons have been at peace for hundreds of years, there's a clear distrust between the two species and tensions only escalate further when Kazimir, a Russian blue, arrives at the Dewhurst farm. As a biracial black girl living in an almost all-white community, Sarah has never led an easy life, but when Kazimir reveals that Sarah is part of an ancient prophecy and the fate of the world rests in her hands her troubles go from bad to worse.
If you haven't read any Patrick Ness, Burn is the perfect introduction to his writing. It features a brilliant cast of diverse characters, an exciting storyline that carefully balances realism with fantasy, and a whole bunch of twists that will keep you guessing until the very end. And if you're already a Patrick Ness fan, then all the more reason to give Burn a go. Because let's get something clear: this is very much A Patrick Ness Novel™.
In fact, in some ways Burn feels almost like an amalgamation of all the books that have come before it. There's the dual narrative and magical realism of Release (executed waaaaay better this time around. Sorry Patrick, I just wasn't a fan of Katherine's story in Release). Then there's the philosophy of And the Ocean Was Our Sky which raises all sorts of questions about prophecy and destiny:
"If prophecy were pure, it would be fact, but it is not... the only prophecy that has any accuracy—any purity—is the one that self-fulfils...Will the world end in darkness because it is foretold? Or because there will be those who believe it so strongly they will make it so?"
Those are the wise words of Bathsheba in And the Ocean Was Our Sky but if you didn't know any better, they could just as easily have come from Kazimir. The idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy is at the very heart of Burn and the book goes full Inception as it explores the cyclical nature of prophecy. Honestly, the more I think about it, the more my head hurts. It's kind of like that scene in Prisoner of Azkaban where Harry and Hermione go back in time to rescue themselves by having Harry conjure a patronus: "I knew I could do it this time because I'd already done it... Does that make sense?" No, Harry, it doesn't. And neither does this, but screw it let's just roll with it.
Then there's the worlds-within-worlds structure that really reminded me of More Than This. What makes a world real? And how do we define reality? There's this scene where Malcolm, our dragon-cult assassin (yep, seriously) explains, "Some of us believe this is all a dream. That reality, whatever it is, never had dragons in it... until one day, we entered a dream where dragons were with us. Had always been with us." This part really reminded me of The Link in More Than This - this idea that you can overwrite the world you live in and replace it with a better, more convenient one and have your brain just fill the gaps in the logic. I think one of my favourite things about More Than This is that it leaves the reader questioning the reality of the events that take place in the novel. As I'm keeping this Burn review spoiler-free, you'll have to find out for yourself whether Ness takes the same approach this time around.
And finally there's the question of monsters and what they represent. Regarding others as monsters is a recurring theme in Ness's novels (I'm thinking the Spackle in Chaos Walking, men in And the Ocean Was Our Sky, and of course Conor's "monster" in A Monster Calls), and in Burn dragons become the latest in a long line of monsters to be cast as villains because of their difference. I think this is probably my favourite theme to come from a Patrick Ness novel because *spoiler: it's usually always the humans that are the monsters!*
“I am always careful around men,” the dragon had answered. “You are dangerous animals.”
You'd be forgiven for thinking that Burn might seem kind of samey or repetitive given that it recycles so many tropes from Ness's previous works but, truthfully, the book feels strikingly original and it's refreshing to read something that's so different and out there. Yes, it uses all those same Patrick Ness ingredients, but this is very much a different recipe with a very different (and very tasty) result.
But despite how much I loved this book with its clever plot twists and playful paradoxes, there were a few areas that I feel let the book down...
I think my biggest issue with this book is the pacing. As I mentioned earlier, this book focuses on the cyclical pattern of the self-fulfilling prophecy and so it isn't trying to tell a story in the traditional linear sense. Which is cool and all, except it seriously messes with the structure and it kind of takes the reader out of it. Without giving too much away, the book is very much split in two halves. And by the time you're approaching the halfway point, you already feel like you're gearing up for a climax. Everything seems to have lined up as it should - this is it. And then things get weird. Suddenly, the goal posts shift and the story kind of folds in on itself. It's hard to explain, and to be honest it's probably best that I don't. Go in blind and just enjoy the ride.
I guess my issue is that while toying with the structure keeps the reader on their toes, it also messes with the rhythm of the story which makes it hard to stay invested. It's kind of like listening to a song that build and builds and just as you're ready for the beat to drop you get... nothing. To be fair, this isn't Ness doing a bad job of telling a story. It's just that we, as readers, have certain expectations about how a story should be told and when those unwritten rules are broken, we don't really know how to respond.
You know me, if a book is gay I'm here for it. One of the things I really like about Patrick Ness is that he includes gay characters without making their sexualities a central plot point. Burn is not a coming out story - and that's fine, we've got plenty of those. But I'm not gonna lie, I was kinda disappointed with the M/M romance in this book - not because it wasn't depicted beautifully, because it was (on a side note, Patrick Ness writes the most tender gay love scenes. Seriously, go check them out.) - but because it just felt a little forced. The characters meet through a chance encounter and spend maybe three days together, and all of a sudden our MC is re-evaluating his entire life and his entire reason for existing seems to be this boy? I'm sorry but I'm just not buying it. It comes down to the pacing issue I mentioned earlier, which is a shame because I actually really liked both characters and it would have been great to see the MC's love interest developed into something more fully realised - not just a tool to facilitate the MC's redemption story arc.
It's worth pointing out that because this takes place in 1950s America, you can expect homophobic and racial abuse. Obviously, it's handled well because it's Patrick Ness but it's always worth knowing what you're letting yourself in for. Also there's a weird kiss scene which quite frankly freaked me the hell out. When you get to it give me a holler because I need to know I'm not the only one needing therapy after reading it!
I've made no secret of the fact I'm not a big fantasy reader. Sorry, it just doesn't butter my crumpets. But that's exactly why I was excited by Burn - a book that takes fantastical elements and inserts them into the real world. In the words of Hannah Montana, you get the best of both worlds. Perfect! Or at least, almost perfect. Unfortunately, Burn fell victim to the same problem as Adam Silvera's Infinity Son: if you're going to incorporate fantasy into the real world, you really need to nail the world-building. Honestly, it's not that big a deal with Burn; Ness does a much better job than Silvera on this front (mainly because Silvera is trying to cram in a whole lot without taking the time to explain it to us) and it's probably just me being picky. I just found the dragon lore so fascinating and it seemed a real shame to me that it was brushed over. We learn that there are various breeds of dragon that each live in different Wastes but that's kind of it? I want to know more about the dragon / human wars that took place prior to 1700! And I want to know more about history as it was recorded by dragons - not humans. Early in the novel, Ness tells us the dragons "moved to their various Wastes around the world at more or less their own request" but this just sounds so wishy-washy to me. What does he mean by "more or less"? Is this humans rewriting history so they're seen in a more favourable light? It certainly seems like something Ness would do - if you've read the Chaos Walking series, think back to Prentisstown and the history of New World that Todd Hewitt is led to believe. I just can't help but feel like there's more to know about the dragons of this world and there's a part of me that's really hoping for a sequel so I can get some answers!
While there are a couple of issues with pacing and story development, Burn is a fantastic novel and a good reminder as to why Patrick Ness is considered one of the best talents in YA fiction. A brilliantly original concept filled with unpredictable twists and turns and a loveable cast of diverse characters, I can't imagine anyone not enjoying Burn. I only wish I'd paid more attention in history class to the Cold War and the space race so that I could understand a couple of the historical references! Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by this one and I'm excited to see what Ness will do next.
Have you read Burn?
Do you have a favourite Patrick Ness novel?
Let me know in the comments!