It is the damnedest thing.
In recent years, YA trends have come on about as subtly as a brick tornado. Vampires. Zombie plagues. Fairy tales. Mermaids, oh god the mermaids. Last year it was cancer. And you'd think, if I took a mermaid trend in stride, I would not be surprised by the sudden appearance of dragons in contemporary YA fiction. I'd be like, "Aw come on guys - it's all dragons nowadays!" But there I was, five pages into Talker 25, going "What the...? It's dragons?"
I think it's because they're just so doofy. Right? Giant lizards with wings? What is that - half dinosaur, half... fairy? How are you going to fit that into a world? Literally - how are you going to fit that creature into a world filled with humans?
Then there's the stigma that goes along with being the dragon-obsessed girl. If you're not careful, your dragon novel will make you look like the kind of girl who goes as Daenarys Targaryen for Halloween. (OR TO HER WEDDING OH GOD MY EYES)
Hee hee hee. I got a little sidetracked.
In Talker 25, the dragons have come from nobody knows where. There are several varieties of dragons - relatively docile ones that consent to being put on reservations, like the Old Man who sleeps on a hill outside of main character Melissa's home town, and violent scary ones who attack humans seemingly without provocation.
The U.S. government has reacted to the presence of these creatures by essentially declaring martial law. Dragon hatred and fear permeates modern life. But as Melissa learns once she begins to communicate with the dragons - yes, dragons have ESP, and some humans can communicate with them - the military is keeping the truth about dragons very secret.
So, not to spoiler too much, but I couldn't help reading this book as an allegory about so-called "Arab terrorists." The docile dragons stand for law-abiding Muslims who are nonetheless treated with suspicion, and the violent dragons may be lashing out at humans due to unjust treatment. I said "may." Which makes Melissa, whose ability is co-opted by the military, at best a translator who develops sympathy for the "enemy" the more she communicates with them, and at worst an unwilling honey pot, luring wild dragons to capture.
Which would be all fine: I don't mind a deftly-drawn allegory. This kind of isn't, though. Or - it isn't a subject to be explored through allegory, maybe? I was uncomfortable with the oversimplifications and with the author "speaking for" the oppressed. And if you don't see the allegory - my son read it and didn't - all you see is a lot of very graphic dragon torture.
I think the word I have to use for Talker 25, in the end, is "unpleasant."
In direct contrast to The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim, another contemporary dragon novel, which is one of the most original and beguiling works of fiction I have read in a long time.
You may not love The Story of Owen for the reasons I love The Story of Owen, but I can more or less guarantee that you are going to love it. Clever, sharp, exciting, full of heart, not sappy, imaginative but not embarrassing... I better do a synopsis before I get carried away.
In The Story of Owen, the dragons have always been here. They are a natural menace, more like tigers than terrorists - dangerous, but not organized or inherently malicious. And in E.K. Johnston's olden days, every town had a dragonslayer to cope with the intermittent dragon threat. Dragonslaying was kind of like being a blacksmith or a cooper: the vocation was more or less passed down in the family or through apprenticeship.
Our Hero (Owen, of course) is the scion of a famed dragonslayer family. His aunt Lottie is a dragonslaying celeb, but has recently sustained a major injury, prompting her, her blacksmith wife, Owen, and his father to move from Toronto back to Trondheim, the small town in Ontario that is their family's traditional home.
Dragons, as it turns out, are attracted to carbon emissions. For this reason, ever since the Industrial Revolution, dragonslayers have been recruited away from their home towns by big corporations - your average steel mill, for example, functioning as an irresistible siren song to firebreathers. Dragonslayers also do military service, meaning that in times of war, factories and towns go undefended. In a typically witty, understated aside, E. K. Johnston comments, "And this is why nobody lives in Michigan anymore."
There is so much STORY here. There is amazingly amusing and well-thought-out backstory. In comic book terms, there are short arcs, longer arcs, and one large storyline that leaves plenty of room for SEQUELS and it is not often I root for a sequel but SEQUEL YES PLEASE RIGHT NOW. There are sharp and realistic characters who say funny funny things to each other - there's really just so much here.
After all, I haven't even gotten to the real main character of the book. She is Siobhan. She is a realist, she is a musician, she recognizes her destiny when it asks her to be its algebra tutor, and she knows when to not let romance spoil a successful partnership.
BOTH of my kids (boys, 10 and 12) read and loved - LOVED - Owen. The publisher is calling this a teen novel but you go ahead and give it to people of either gender from the age of 10 up. Even if those kids don't savor the family dynamics and nuanced friendships, they will enjoy the hell out of the dragonslaying and the banter and the very entertaining backstory sections.
ADDENDUM: I realize I may not have completely addressed the whole "Flying reptile fairy horsie thing is WHAA?!?" issue. Let me be clear - the dragons in this book are not the point. The dragons in this book give the immensely imaginative author an excuse to write a whole batch of fun alternate history AND get the teens out of the house to do something dangerous and exciting (and unsupervised). This makes The Story of Owen a great next read for Percy Jackson fans. It also recalls Cherie Priest's Boneshaker and the phenomenally witty Hold Me Closer, Necromancer.
Pubs March 1 from Carolrhoda, a division of Lerner. Carolrhoda, by the way, has been KILLING IT the past few years. This year, Carrie Mesrobian was a finalist for YALSA's Morris Award, given to the best debut writer, for her book Sex & Violence. Blythe Woolston won that same award a few years ago for The Freak Observer, a book that nobody could read because it had a cow heart on the cover, but I beg you - throw out the dust jacket and read that book. And read this one. And - you know - just do what I say all the time, save yourself the effort.