A year ago, I reviewed a YA contemporary fantasy novel that drew an intriguing picture of an alternate world where dragons and dragon slayers integrated seamlessly with a world of cars and cornfields. The Song of Owen has spun out into a wonderful and worthy sequel, Prairie Fire. E.K. Johnston gives us a new verse for Owen, featuring his bard, Siobhan McQuaid and their many companions on the oft-mentioned Oil Watch (an international protective duty linking dragon slayers, engineers, medics, firefighters and, after many years without, bards).
A number of other reviewers were taken by Johnston’s deft and engaging alternate history as I was on the first outing. This only deepens in Prairie Fire where Johnston takes us deep into the Oil Watch and deeper into the world those brave souls protect. She delights in off-hand mentions of historical figures from our world who figure a bit differently in her own. In Prairie Fire, this is particularly evident with the focus on Sir John A. MacDonald, the first Prime Minister of Canada and, in both the real world as well as Owen’s universe, the driving force behind a transcontinental railroad. The project was a tough enough endeavour in real history; just imagine what it would have been like in a world where dragons were drawn by fire and exhaust to feast and destroy. So there, the railway went deep underground for far more of the route. In both cases, that labour was mostly through the work of Chinese labourers, whose sacrifices earned them a share of the tunnel’s name as spoken of by McQuaid and others stationed at the desolate concrete outpost of Fort Calgary: the John A-Zuò Tunnel.
Deep tunnels and dedicated dragon slayers don’t mean ease and safety. Johnston gives us risks and dangers galore as we take up after the harrowing end of The Song of Owen with the high school students preparing to wrap up their studies and head off to their duties. Only nobody exactly knows what Siobhan’s duties are, including Siobhan, in a world that’s forgotten the bardic tradition. Where corporate contracts have outweighed community good and dragon slayers are seen as distant figures: those are battles that Owen and Siobhan have already fought and began to make inroads upon with the help of their fellow crusaders, Sadie and Emily. Now the foursome are torn apart, the first three sent off to training in the Oil Watch and Emily remaining behind as their anchor to the rest of the world transfixed by the heroes of Manitoulin.
Siobhan struggles, saddled with devastating injuries incurred during that epic battle in the first book. But she struggles with the help of her friends, old and new, who bond with her in determination to make a difference in the Watch. Around Owen, the support crew builds with Siobhan’s centring support: engineers like Courtney Speed, medics and firefighters, who are there to assist Owen in his terrifying duty. During training, they bond and shine, but then they are faced with even more hurdles, including an unexpected posting where they connect with another renegade dragon slayer, Declan Porter.
And now, in a fashion I hope that Siobhan will approve, we pause for a musical interlude. Siobhan characterizes almost every person she meets musically. Owen’s a horn, Sadie a trumpet. Peter, a farmer that Siobhan befriends, is a mandolin. And Declan Porter, SAS-trained dragon slayer? He’s bagpipes. No bluster, just deeply-based determination leavened with a sense of humour. He’s also a wary mentor for Owen and all the rest: fellows in disgrace, for Declan threw his career away when rather than hide from the most awe-inspiring of dragons, a rogue Chinook boiling out of the Rockies and down to Kansas, he shot it down. Porter saved thousands but his kill started a fire that still burns, years later. (Johnston’s dragons are a serious ecological threat when killed out of turn.) So for Declan Porter, I offer up the feeble hope of rest and relaxation, with Spirit of the West‘s “Home for a Rest”
For Siobhan, Owen and all the rest, there are more adventures in this book. There are adventures and dangerous that will astonish and test, both characters and readers. Serving in the Oil Watch, Owen’s team uneasily realizes that there is real inequity and wilful blindness in their world. They see that people are not the prime value of politicians: but coal, land and wheat. There are trenchant observations as condensed in this exchange between Sadie and Siobhan:
“What are you singing about?” she asked. “The price of wheat?”
“Not in terms of money,” I said.
Siobhan, Owen, Sadie and the rest are also refreshingly real. They stumble and flail, they misread people and yet they soldier on because they are soldiers, now. We follow them into the concrete jungles, off to the coast and into many more encounters with dragons along the way. Primed by the rash and principled bravery of Declan Porter, however, you never know what they might do when a hot wind blows off the mountains.
So I’ll end this review with one more musical interlude, including another bit of Canadiana, for Prairie Fire is that, too, although it wears the Maple Leaf lightly. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young mixed memories, hope and benediction in “Long May You Run”. That is my hope for Owen’s crew and for Johnston, with many more books before her.