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“What you must remember through all of this is that you are not special. You are merely lucky,” Kazimir. —Burn
by Patrick Ness
AR Test, LGBTQ, Strong Female Character
Sarah Dewhurst’s life in 1957 changes the moment her father’s hired help arrives at their small farm in Frome, Washington. Instead of a local farmhand looking for extra cash, her father hires a blue dragon with a thick Russian accent who believes Sarah is destined to cause the end of the world.
The first half of the book follows the two main characters—Sarah Dewhurst, a farmer’s daughter, and Malcolm, a trained cult assassin—as they try to prepare for the day of reckoning. Through the dragon’s cryptic messages, Sarah learns she is destined to start a war between dragons and humans.
Malcolm travels from a Believer compound in Canada to Frome. He is sent by the cult’s goddess, Mitera Thea, to kill Sarah. As tensions rise and the two storylines converge, Malcolm activates an old dragon relic, plunging him and Sarah into a world where dragons do not exist. The second half of the novel follows the characters in the new world, where they must race against the clock to prepare a final battle before the entire world is destroyed.
The two characters who have the most growth are Sarah and Mitera Thea, the cult goddess. Sarah, who has spent her whole life fighting racism, doesn’t believe in herself, but she still stands up and fights when her world is threatened. Mitera Thea takes her human-hating tendencies to a whole new level once she turns into a dragon, and sets her sights on destroying the world. But in her final moments, Mitera Thea sees how interesting humans can be when pushed to the limit.
Burn covers several difficult topics such as racism (Sarah is a mixed raced female and her best friend Jason is the son of Japanese immigrants), homophobia (Malcolm falls in love with a young man, Nelson, during his travel to Frome), and abuse (Sarah, Jason, and Nelson all receive abuse from community members). Another tough topic that is touched on is cult worship—Malcolm was raised from his elementary years with the sole mission to kill Sarah Dewhurst. These topics are not described in graphic detail but Burn highlights why racism, homophobia, and cult worship are bad.
Patrick Ness fits seemingly random ideas into his novels and makes them work. However, dimension-hopping alongside Cold War era dragons becomes hard to follow. The build-up for doomsday is rushed and once the mini climax is revealed and the characters are transported to another world, the book begins to lose its luster and becomes confusing. While Ness tackles sensitive topics in ways that fit the setting, the week-long plot and dimension-hopping fall flat.
- Deputy Sheriff Kelby calls Sarah a slut.
- Kelby tries to assault Sarah. Kelby “moved the baton down to the hem of her skirt and started to raise it. ‘No,’ she said.” Someone intervenes before Kelby can do anything else.
- Malcolm and Nelson huddle for warmth in the truck and are intimate with each other. “Nelson’s fingers didn’t stop at Malcolm’s waistline, where the tattoos did.”
- “[Love] was not in the preparations Malcom had been given. He’d been warned of predatory men and women who might seek this in exchange for favors, favors like rides to the border.”
- Because of lies that Nelson was told, he believed LGBTQ sex “would have to be rough. And violent. And full of shame.”
- Agent Woolf, as a dragon, finds herself pregnant. “Agent Woolf had been very much a virgin. She hated humans far too much to touch any one of them in that way.”
- Malcolm tries to convince his double in the other world that he is Malcolm. The other Malcom says, “’you’re the first man I’ve ever kissed.’ He frowned, “that’s kinky.’”
- Sarah describes the racist deputy sheriff in town. “Kelby had thoughts on these issues [of Sarah driving illegally]. Deputy Kelby would be only too happy to find Sarah Dewhurst, daughter of Gareth and Darlene Dewhurst, illegally behind the wheel of a farm truck, and what might he do then?”
- Sarah recalls the tension between nations. “Khrushchev, the Premier of the Soviet Union, threatening to annihilate them pretty much every week these days.”
- Malcolm faces off against Mounties in Canada. “The first gunshot took out the side flap of [Malcom’s] hat and the middle of his left ear. The bullet reached him before the sound did.”
- The fight between Malcom and the Mounties takes a drastic turn when a dragon steps into the fight. The mountain police, “exploded in a wash of fire and blood that Malcolm stepped back behind a tree to avoid, not incidentally stepping out of the line of sight of the first man’s gun. He still caught a wave of blood across the side of his face.”
- Kelby attacks Jason and Sarah in a racially charged fight. “Kelby’s baton lashed out so fast Jason didn’t even have a chance to duck. It hit him on the throat, and he fell to his knees, coughing as if to choke.” Sarah is attacked and “[Kelby] swung the gun, hitting her jaw.” The fight is described over two pages.
- Malcolm befriends a gay man, Nelson, who tells the story of how his parents kicked him out of the house. “His father had beat him; his mother had told him to never come back.”
- Dernovich, a detective who is following Malcom, is shot. “The man lay on the floor of the motel room, astonishment on his face along with the blood bubbling on his lips.” He dies from his injury.
- As both plot lines converge, there is a scuffle and a gun fight involving Sarah, Jason, the sheriff, Malcolm, and Sarah’s dad. “There was so much shouting, [Sarah] didn’t even hear the gunshot, only saw the pistol flip out of Jason’s hand, saw the blood erupt from his wrist. Then a second eruption from his back as he turned from the force of the first.”
- Sarah’s father is shot. “He also didn’t know he had been shot until he slumped to one knee.” Her father dies from his wound.
- Malcom and Agent Woolf have a gun and knife fight. “The gun went off as [Malcolm] cut [Agent Wolff], sending the shot astray, his blade going so deep he severed her forefinger altogether.” The fight is described over four pages.
- Woolf wakes up as a dragon and goes on a rampage, destroying cities, including Seattle. “The first building exploded, her fire blasting out the entire ground floor and bringing down the eight floors above it in an almost slow-motion tumble.” The destruction goes on for seven pages.
- The ultimate battle between the main group of characters and the first dragon starts. It goes on for twelve pages; most of it is dialogue with violence including gun shots, firebreath, and impalement. Nameless soldiers are killed by fire. Agent Wolff, the dragon, is impaled in the end. “As [Agent Wolff] took in her breath to destroy them, Jason Inagawa, unheard under the artillery, drove a truck directly into her belly, his family’s steel plow attached to the hood. She cried out. Instead of a blast of pure fire, a rush of acid spilled from her mouth.” Her death scene continues for half a page.
Drugs and Alcohol
- Dernovich observes a teen and thinks “he couldn’t be more than seventeen, disappearing into the trees that lined the river, probably to smoke, or whatever Believer teens did to rebel.”
- Hell is used once.
- Fruit, a slur toward gays, is used three times. Queer as an insult is used once.
- Damn is used four times.
- Someone says “that little fucker” and “we’re fucked.”
- Shit/shitbag is used four times. For example, someone says, “the murdering little shitbag.”
- Dragons exist during Cold War era America.
- A major plot point within Burn is the cult of the Believers. They are a group that believe that humans are a nuisance to dragons and that dragons should once again rule the earth. They worship their main priestess, Mitera Thea, who is their “Mother Goddess.”
- Another major plot point is a half-transcribed prophecy that foretells the end of the world. The location of the catalyst is in Frome, Washington, on Sarah’s farm.
- Malcolm is a worshiper of the Believers. He was raised within one of their cells in Canada. He prays to Mitera Thea to aid him on his journey. He considers himself a servant to her.
- The dragons also believe in a goddess. They call the first dragon the Goddess, the one who created and then tried to destroy the dragons with her chaotic magic. They destroyed her dragon form and turned her into a human.
- A dragon realizes the Believer’s version of the prophecy is interpreted differently than the dragon’s version. “The Believers thought they were giving the world to dragons. A world without humans. They didn’t know what doom they had started.”
- God and Christ are mentioned four times; the Bible once. “What in God’s name?” and “Christ” are used as an expletive. The Bible is compared to the Believer’s prophecy.
- Nelson is called “an abomination against God” because of his sexual orientation.
- Sarah’s dad mentions an old wives’ tale about dragons: “An animal without a soul is still an animal, no matter how many words it’s learned to lie with.”
- Sarah talks about how kids used to be scared of dragons. Sarah “knew kids at school who prayed every night that they’d wake up in the morning.”
- Sarah’s dad mentions another tale: “Just because the devil gave [dragons] the gift of speech doesn’t mean you’re talking to anything more than a mostly undomesticated predator.”
- Malcolm tries to explain aspects of his religion. “Faith is belief without proof. It is a leap, an act of bravery.”
- The Spur of the Goddess is the talon of the first dragon. It is believed to be a weapon of destruction. It is also a holy symbol.
- Agent Woolf tries to kill a dragon because “sometimes one must commit even the vilest blasphemy for the greater good. . . ”
- Malcolm hitchhikes and meets various drivers, “one of them tries to convert him to Christianity.”
by Signe Nettum