Dragons inhabit myriad literary homes, from high-fantasy epics to classic children’s stories. But have they ever been associated with the origin of Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald?” Or the fires of Kuwait? Or Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson? Or the success of the Beatles? First-time author E.K. Johnston connects all of these seemingly disparate dots in her dazzlingly sharp alternate history for teens, telling the story of a world that has never existed without dragons.
Siobhan McQuaid and Owen Thorskard, high school students in small-town Ontario, live like everyone else on Earth: under the constant threat of dragon attacks. Drawn to anything with carbon emissions (fires, cars, factories, oil sands, etc.), dragons can be safely killed only when a sword slices their two hearts; any other method results in a dangerous leak of toxins from their carcasses. Owen comes from a line of famous dragon slayers and Siobhan is his modern-day bard, charged with applying her musical talents to telling the stories of his conquests (and tutoring him in algebra). When dragon attacks begin to drastically increase in their area, Siobhan and Owen must rally the town in the absence of any government support.
Johnston, a forensic archaeologist by trade, brilliantly weaves together Canadian history and speculative elements to create a propulsive plot and a thoroughly believable draconic world. Readers learn how an international initiative to protect the world’s natural resources, called the Pearson Oil Watch after the former prime minister, brought Owen’s dragon-slaying parents together during the fires of Kuwait (blazes that burned out of control thanks to interference from carbon-hungry dragons), and the Gordon Lightfoot classic is linked to a ship that was destroyed by dragons. By contrast, the Beatles’ fame was attained by offering escapist songs with no mention of the dragon reality.
Johnston has created a whip-smart, witty, and utterly inventive alternate history. If this stellar debut is any indication, hers looks to be a bright, long-burning career.