Book review: Burn by Patrick Ness

Thanks to Walker Books, who sent me a review copy of Patrick Ness’s new YA book Burn via NetGalley. It is out now (yay!) so if it sounds like something you’d enjoy, order a copy from your nearest indie bookshop. Not from Amazon, please pretty please.

The blurb

On a cold Sunday evening in early 1957, Sarah Dewhurst waited with her father in the parking lot of the Chevron Gas Station for the dragon he’d hired to help on the farm.

This dragon, Kazimir, has more to him than meets the eye. Sarah can’t help but be curious about him, an animal who supposedly doesn’t have a soul but is seemingly intent on keeping her safe from the brutal attentions of Deputy Sheriff Emmett Kelby.

Kazimir knows something she doesn’t. He has arrived at the farm because of a prophecy. A prophecy that involves a deadly assassin, a cult of dragon worshippers, two FBI agents – and somehow, Sarah Dewhurst herself.’

From the bestselling author of the Chaos Walking trilogy comes a heart-stopping story of fanaticism, hope, bravery and impossible second chances, set in a world on the very brink of its own destruction.

My review


I think, in the reading part of my brain, there’s always a little countdown to when the next Patrick Ness book is going to appear. I’m a fan of his writing in part for the same reason I’m a fan of Neil Gaiman’s writing, which is to say you don’t know what you’re going to get except that the writing will be fearless; the book will be, somehow, despite him never covering the same ground twice, also Very Much A Patrick Ness book. So I’ve been looking forward to Burn, of course, and I wasn’t disappointed. I think, though I hesitate to say it, that it might even be my favourite of all the things he’s written.

The seemingly simple premise is 1950s with dragons – a premise that is deftly evoked. Small town America (we’re in Frome, again!) in the midst of the Cold War, with a population of fire-breathers who have always been in there. And Ness extrapolates that basic fact of the universe he’s created in ways that make sense. In a nutshell: All-American is good; anyone different is bad; Russian is worse. With dragons come dragon fanatics; with the Cold War comes suspicion, fear, and conspiracy theories. It’s not a great time to be Sarah Dewhurst, a mixed-race teenager in a very white town, whose dad has just hired a ‘Russian blue’ dragon to work on their farm – something sure to bring on the wrath of the despicable Deputy Sheriff Kelby. Because yes, the human prejudices extend beyond the realm of people and into that of dragons – a species who really couldn’t care less about the piddly humans, let alone their arbitrary country borders, but work with them because… I trail off there, because spoilers. Anyway, the set-up is utterly believable, and the characters immediately engaging – crucial for the reader for the wild and messy ride that follows.

Yes – wild, messy… and utterly under control. I’ve read Burn twice now. The story does not go where you expect it to go – not even the second time – but that spontaneity and complete blasting to smithereens of Tropes You Thought You Knew is plotted very carefully. The clues are there, the path is inevitable (a concept that is itself examined in the book). And it’s all done with what I, we, have come to expect from Ness. A light touch, some humour, and a deep understanding of people and the hurt they carry, and their hopes, and loves, and dreams. An eye towards young people and that rawness of emotion, that feeling of the world descending quite suddenly and not being what anyone led you to believe it would be. And, of course, there are relationships to root for. My GOD do we root for them. I was in tears more than once, and I will not tell you whether they were happy or sad tears.

Five stars to this book. Five bright, shining, shooting stars. I loved it.

I’ve been very careful to avoid giving away much information – but if you want more, from Patrick Ness himself, then I suggest heading to the Big Book Weekend on Sunday 10 May and listening to him in conversation with Katherine Webber and Juno Dawson. It’s a hugely interesting interview, and he has a lot to say about Burn. It’s free and easy to register, and there’s a live Q&A taking place after the interview has screened.

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