Goddesses and Madmen: Burn by Patrick Ness

Real world small town America in 1950s. A biracial teen girl, her Japanese American boyfriend. Her financially struggling farmer father. Cold War tensions. A Canadian teenager raised in a cult. Two detectives on the hunt. A prophecy. A goddess. And because this is Patrick Ness’ latest novel Burn—dragons.

16 year old Sarah’s father has hired a Russian blue dragon to help clear some fields, but only because he is desperate. He doesn’t trust the dragon, Kazimir, who seems to know much more than he should, and has taken an interest in Sarah’s safety. Sarah is a ‘pivot’ in a grand plan and without her, Kazimir is certain the world will end. Blue dragons, known for their scholarly ways believe in a prophecy that (while exasperatingly confusing) has lead Kazimir to Sarah’s farm. Sarah herself, as Kazimir tells her, is not special in any way—she is just someone in the right place, at the right time. It’s ‘not you in particular’, says Kazimir, ‘…but this time. This place.[…] This exact time. This exact place. And a girl.’ And so Kazimir is interested in Sarah from the very start, something she does not understand at first, as grateful as she is for his protection on a number of occasions.

She isn’t meant to talk to the dragon though; isn’t meant to engage with him, or even tell him her name, as per her father’s strict instructions. It is said that dragons don’t have a soul. It is said they aren’t to be trusted. But then all sorts of things are said about Sarah and about Jason, too.

Sarah’s father is white, and her late mother was black. Jason’s mother, too, has died, but in a camp in Idaho, where his parents (both US citizens) had been sent to as potential enemy collaborators by sheer dint of their Japanese heritage. Both Sarah and Jason ‘effectively invisible’ at school, existing on the peripheries. But they’ve both experienced enough racism to know what small town mentality is like, particularly from the town’s deputy sheriff. Deputy Kelby is a right nasty piece of work, and stands for everything wrong in America back then (but also everything wrong in America now). Xenophobic, racist, sexist and bigoted, he doesn’t hold back from making Sarah and Jason’s lives miserable. His interactions with Kazimir are funny, though, not in the least because he insists on treating the dragon as if he is subordinate. Kazimir, of course, rises well above the nonsense of human classifications. ‘You a Communist, claw?’ asks Kelby, to which Kazimir only replies, ‘I am a dragon’.

Dragons exist, just as Chevron gas stations exist, just as diners and farming and Russian satellites and the World Wars exits. But while dragons mostly stay away from human wars, keeping themselves out of politics and violence, they do on occasion hire their services out, where their brute strength and fire power help them do things like clear fields in record time. They are both incredibly magical, and also an accepted part of reality:

‘How could such a creature even really exist? How could they not just be a magical fantasy? If they hadn’t always been there, no one would have believed in them.’

Some humans believe more than others, though, including a cult simply called the Believers, that began two hundred years ago in BC and Alberta to ‘worship dragons’. It is ‘insular and so surprisingly antihuman—despite being exclusively human in membership.’ Dragons themselves have nothing to do with the Believers, and keep largely to themselves, and that is the ‘great joke of it all …—even when Believers were committing crimes on their behalf—the dragons seemed to ignore them as much as they ignored everyone else these days, which was to say, almost completely.’

It is in this cult that young Malcom is raised in, his faith in its methods and prophecies utterly unshakable…until he befriends and then falls for a young Guatemalan Canadian man called Nelson who has run away from home, and so for Nelson, feels a love greater than what he’s known in his life spent worshiping dragons. With Malcom, Nelson too becomes caught up in the race to fulfil the prophecy, as two FBI agents chase them down.

Sarah, Jason, Malcom, Nelson. When the lives of these young people collide with Kazimir’s, everything changes—not just for them, and not just for the world they know.

Multiple award winning writer Patrick Ness always delivers, and never, ever holds back in doing what he wants—like throwing dragons into a mix. Burn, is a fast paced thriller with a complex plot and filmic visuals that never loses sway over the reader. His characters may be in the ’in the hands of goddesses & madmen,’ but his readers are in for a deftly written and (as always), thought provoking ride.

Burn is available from Quill Tree Books.

Mahvesh loves dystopian fiction and appropriately lives in Karachi, Pakistan. She writes about stories and interviews writers for the Tor.com podcast Midnight in Karachi when not wasting much too much time on Twitter.

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