Prairie Fire, by E.K. Johnston. Reviewed by Stephanie Burgis.

Prairie Fire (Fiction - Young Adult)
Prairie Fire, by E.K. Johnston. Reviewed by Stephanie Burgis. Hardcover (ISBN 146773909X) Carolrhoda Books, March 1 2015 – 304 pages. Ebook also available.

Prairie Fire is the sequel to E.K. Johnston’s The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim, which may well have been the most quirky, original, interesting and just plain fun YA fantasy novel of 2014. Set in a modern-day Canada in which dragons are a very real threat to everyday life, both books are told from the warm, funny, often poetic and always engaging point-of-view of Siobhan McQuaid, the first true bard in a generation.

In The Story of Owen, Siobhan first found her calling as a bard when Owen Thorskard and his dragon-slaying family moved to her small town. In Prairie Fire, Siobhan accompanies Owen into the larger world as they turn eighteen, join the international dragon-slaying army known as the Oil Watch, and set out to defend the rest of the world from dragons…and just possibly change the way that dragon-slaying works, along the way. Siobhan’s only goal is to document Owen’s dragon-slaying heroics for the rest of the world, working on the sidelines as his personal bard. By the end of the book, though, she’s forced to finally grapple with the question: what if she, too, could be the hero of her story?

These are such fun, engaging books that it came as a (perfectly played-out) shock, in the first book, to see just what a gut-wrenching price Siobhan had to pay for an act of heroism at the end. In The Story of Owen, she lost most of the use of her hands–a particularly terrible loss for a musician. In Prairie Fire, she shows us exactly what that loss means, as she searches for a new way to express herself in music, and also fights to survive in the army with a disability. Johnston never flinches away from showing just how frustrating and heartbreaking that kind of newly-acquired disability can feel, as Siobhan fights to do previously-simple things like turning can lids or buttoning up her uniform…and can’t bring herself to even touch the keys of her old piano. Her growing fame, spreading virally across the world via YouTube, has forced the Oil Watch to allow her in beside Owen despite her disability. Still, no one ever promised to make it easy or even do-able, and there are more than a few of her supervisors who are rooting for her to fail.

And then, of course, there are the dragons…including one more terrifying than they have ever faced before.

There are enough offhand references to the events of The Story of Owen in the beginning of Prairie Fire to make the first few chapters potentially off-putting to readers who haven’t read the first book in the series. However, even if you don’t want to read Book One first, it’s well worth the struggle of making it through those first few chapters of Book Two, as a first-time reader. Once Siobhan and Owen settle into their new life in the army, Prairie Fire stands perfectly on its own as one of the most unique and interesting urban fantasies that I’ve read this year.

One of the best parts about this series, for me, is the intricately-worked-out alternate history that Johnston has developed for a world constantly threatened by dragonfire–a history which Siobhan shares in enticing chunk, in her role as bard. In the first book, she told the epic story of The Fall of Michigan, as spearheaded by a stubborn Henry Ford (and a serious lack of environmental oversight). Now this book shares the story of the War of 1812, in which Canada ended up with the Dakotas, among other land acquisitions, due to the fact that most of the trained British-American dragonslayers had moved to Canada after the United States’s War of Independence, and early nineteenth-century American leaders refused to hire black or native dragonslayers.

Nowadays, of course, dragonslaying has been made into an international responsibility, as all young dragon-slayers are drafted, like it or not, into the Oil Watch…but as the name hints, the Oil Watch often cares more about protecting its corporate sponsors and their interests than about protecting the civilians whose lives are threatened by dragonfire.

Siobhan and Owen are already viewed as loose cannons when they first join, because of their earlier actions in The Story of Owen. It’s a sign of the Oil Watch’s deep disfavor that they’re sent to work in the province of Alberta (which, in this version of Canada, includes the Dakotas and Kansas) instead of to a more respected posting in the Middle East. But even as Siobhan finds even more reasons to distrust and disagree with the way that the Oil Watch is run, she also forms deep bonds of friendship and trust with the other dragonslayers and support crews from all over the world who have been sent there…and together, in the end, they all find themselves faced with a terrible decision.

The books in this two-book series (now complete) are filled with an enormous amount of warmth and fun, with wonderful characters and humor, great dragonslaying action, and fascinating worldbuilding. So it can be a real shock to find out, at the end of each, that they can be so heartbreaking as well. I haven’t cried so much over any book in a very long time as I cried over the ending of Prairie Fire. Still, I can’t wait to re-read it. Strongly, strongly recommended.

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