Listen! I am Siobhan McQuaid. I know the cost of even a small bend in the course of history. Listen!”
How to Train Your Dragon set in Canada.
That’s it, that’s the book. Sort of.
Prairie Fire is the sequel and final book in the duology known as the Story of Owen, a teenage dragon slayer set in modern-day Canada, in an alternate version today’s world filled with dragons who eat carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels. This review will spoil the ending of the first book, so if you’d rather remain unsullied, I heartily recommend you obtain a copy of the first book pronto because this is a book about a befuddled and likable teenage dragon slayer, his supportive family, town, and friends, people working together and forging positive relationships because positive relationships are awesome, and above all, it’s about Siobhan McQuaid, the teenage girl who became Owen’s bard and immortalized his story forever.
If you spoilers do not bother you, venture onward.
In this world exactly like our own except for the part where there are dragons who wreak havoc upon the world’s countries, especially countries that burn a lot of fossil fuels, dragon slayers protect towns, countries, and business interests from getting burned to the ground. When they turn eighteen, all dragon slayers-in-training must serve for four years in the Oil Watch, an international organization dedicated to providing protection from dragon attacks to every single country.
Owen Thorskard, a budding Canadian dragon slaying hero, his best friend and bard Siobhan McQuaid, and Owen’s girlfriend plus newly-turned dragon slayer Sadie are about to begin their four years of service.Owen, descended from a family of national dragon-slaying heroes, is a goodhearted sort, dedicated to doing his duty. Siobhan, a talented musician and composer, is still adjusting to her new disability, her hands having been badly burned during the dangerous mission she and her friends undertook in the previous book The Story of Owen. With a severe loss of range of motion in her hands leaving her unable to play most instruments, Siobhan nevertheless joins Owen in the Oil Watch as his bard, driven to tell his story the best way she knows how—with her music. Their first year of service in the Oil Watch is an eye-opening experience for both Owen and Siobhan navigate learning to work in larger teams, Oil Watch politics, and the prices paid when your career involves slaying fire-breathing monsters.
I’ve probably made this book sound dark and gloomy, and while it has its moments, Prairie Fire is a viscerally comforting read. I say “viscerally” because, just like the first one, the joy of reading Prairie Fire comes from the mixed group of slayers, soldiers, civilians, engineers, and all sorts of people who spend the book forming positive relationships with each other and working together for a common goal. As part of the Oil Watch, Owen now has a squadron of engineers and medics, with whom Siobhan and Owen are constantly joking with, swapping stories, trading knowledge of their own areas of expertise, and providing help whenever anyone needs it. Similar dynamics are established between Owen and his fellow dragon-slayers-in-training, all of whom are from different parts of the world with different experience levels and personalities, but who are committed towards learning from and supporting one another.
Because this book is primarily concerned with relationships and larger systems of organization, there is no “big bad”, no antagonist or evil government or corporation to go up against. Rather, the book incorporates harmful and discriminatory beliefs and practices that are part and parcel of the Oil Watch, such as their commanding officer’s belief that dragon slayers shouldn’t need to depend on their teams, the Filipino contracted workers in dragon waste disposal who don’t have any benefits because they’re not directly employed by the Oil Watch, and dragon slayers under contract by corporations who only save the people and property they’re paid to save. As such, this book doesn’t have an overarching conflict to be resolved, which combined with the lack of interpersonal conflict between the characters, meant that the narrative dragged a bit at times. This personally did not bother me because said character interactions plus all the many and very cool world-building tidbits effectively held my attention.
Siobhan the bard has been this duology’s protagonist. Level-headed, matter-of-fact, and an incredibly accomplished musician and composer, she made her choice in the previous book to follow Owen wherever his path took him to tell his story through the might of her music, regardless of the cost. Having lost much of the use of her hands, leaving her unable to play most of her instruments, Siobhan remains undeterred in her mission, continuing to compose symphonies in her head of everything she witnesses and learning to play the bugle (especially apt in a military setting). My favorite thing about Siobhan, and the writing in general, is how she conceptualizes of each character as an instrument characters’ relationships as harmonies that come together to form a cohesive musical piece. It’s apt, evocative, and gets across so much about who each character is without being reductive or twee.
I thought Siobhan’s disability was handled well (though bear in mind I am nowhere near an expert on the portrayal of disability in fiction). Siobhan is constantly aware of all the things she can’t do now and the frequency with which she encounters those things that several months ago she did without a thought, which means the readers are constantly aware as well. Her teammates know when it’s ok to help and when it’s not, and when to go ahead and help because goddammit it’s an emergency, you are not going to die from dragon-fire because you were having trouble buttoning your buttons. She mourns the loss of her previous range of motion, but she also finds workarounds to do as many tasks as she can and finds new instruments she can play with her injuries.
Story-wise, I love that it really and truly is Siobhan’s story and not Owen’s, the titular dragon slayer. Much of her character development comes from her learning that, rather than filling a seemingly unnecessary, purely supportive role, Siobhan’s task is just as great as Owen’s and makes an even bigger impact. With the power of music and storytelling, the power of Youtube, and the power that comes from having a million followers worldwide, Siobhan’s stories of Owen’s dragon-slaying are what people will remember when they call to mind dragon-slaying and the Oil Watch. Without her, there is no legacy, no hero, and all the other people who are part of Owen’s story—his squadron, his parents, his aunt, the people of the town of Trondheim where he moved with his family and met Siobhan—get left out of the story that they are absolutely a part of. Most importantly, it’s Siobhan’s story. Even as she’s writing with Owen in mind, it’s as her story as it is his. While the book doesn’t go past hints at the underlying politics of the Oil Watch and the Canadian government when it comes to dragon-slaying, it’s exceedingly clear just how much power Siobhan has and just how nervous both the Watch and government are of the music and stories she creates.
Related to whose stories she’s telling, I also appreciated how casually diverse Prairie Fire is, racially and (to a more limited extent), sexuality-wise. I had completely forgotten that Owen is biracial (his mother’s Venezuelan), and was pleased to be reminded of that fact. In addition to dragon slayers in the Oil Watch who are people of color, Siobhan and Owen visit with some First Nation dragon slayers from the Haida tribe, whose sea-hunting dragon-slaying techniques not only involve the very kind of teamwork and trust that Siobhan and Owen have been building with their squadron, other Oil Watch members, and civilians for the past several months, but that the Oil Watch have adapted as part of their own defenses. I really liked how Siobhan’s friend Peter, his family, and his tribe were casually and naturally made a part of the narrative of Canada’s dragon-slaying history and how though they’re not a formal part of the Oil Watch, Owen and the other dragon slayers learn from and swamp techniques like they normally do with each other.
One thing I am ambivalent about how Siobhan’s written with regards to romance, and because this particular issue is more personal for me than others, I’m going to devote a bit of ink to it. It’s almost a running joke throughout the book that Siobhan is uninterested in pursuing romance with any of the men around her, and when she picks up on two different men’s interest in her, she tries to find ways to let them know she likes them as people but doesn’t return their feelings. The reason I say “joke” is because Siobhan offhandedly comments on how Sadie would be teasingly exasperated at Siobhan’s lack of interest if she knew what was going on, and even jokes that her reaching out to one of the potential love interests about composing music with him is “practically second base” for her. I think it’s awesome Siobhan doesn’t have a romantic relationship, doesn’t feel pressured into one despite all the ongoing betting pools, and directly pokes fun at people’s assumption that of course she and Owen are in love since she’s his bard. On the other hand, because both Siobhan and the people around her imply that her attitudes are atypical enough to be remarked upon, it would have meant a lot to me if the narrative had actually said she was aromantic (which is how I read her), or at the very least have Siobhan clearly state once and for all “I’m not interested in romantic relationships, period” rather than dancing around the matter in the subtext.
I have no idea if E.K. Johnston intentionally wrote Siobhan as aromantic, and I can’t remember it being brought up in The Story of Owen. (I have read one or two reviews of Prairie Fire where other people read her as asexual—that’s also entirely possible, except the focus was always on the lack of romantic emotions, not sexual attraction. E.K. Johnston includes R.J. Anderson in the credits of Prairie Fire, and her last book Quicksilver featured an ace protagonist, so there’s a possibility that had some influence on this particular book?) Siobhan does provide reasons for why she’s not interested in either of the two men (they’ll be leaving the country in four years, they don’t fully understand the Oil Watch way of life) which potentially indicate she could entertain romantic feelings for them if the cards lined up differently.
Like I said, I’m ambivalent. Part of me is really glad to have Siobhan written the way she is—someone who isn’t interested in romance, knows that makes her different than others, and recognizes that her disinterest in people doesn’t mean they’ll be disinterested in her. And I also appreciate that apart from some lighthearted teasing from her friends, no one does or says anything to indicate she’s wrong, broken, or a freak for any of it. But I also really wanted some explicit confirmation that that is who she is. This is very much a personal matter for me regarding representation. There are almost no explicitly aromantic characters in fiction, which typically leaves me headcanoning characters as such to fill the lack. And sure, I have the right to read Siobhan as aromantic regardless of author intention, but with this book, it feels so tantalizingly close to confirmation, to intentional acknowledgement and recognition of aromanticism, that the fact that I’m left hanging without it leaves me feeling incredibly frustrated.
All in all, I really do love that these books exist. They’re a fresh take on dragonslaying mythology adapted for modern times, it’s at turns fun and light-hearted and dramatic and scary, and at its core, Prairie Fire and its previous book are about the uplifting power of teamwork and coming together for a common good, and the ways in which that happens—friendship, service to a higher cause, music, a story, an epic, a legend. More than anything, these books are original. I can’t think of any YA books that read quite like these ones, and that is 100% a compliment. These are the kind of books that will probably fly under the radar as unappreciated gems, so I highly suggest reading them and giving them the appreciation they deserve.