Subscribe to SLJ
Follow This Blog: RSS feed
Someday My Printz Will Come
Inside Someday My Printz Will Come

The Story of Owen

The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim by E. K. Johnston
Published by Carolrhoda Lab, March 2014
Reviewed from final copy

You know we’re not going to get out of here without a Trogdor reference, right? I mean, that’s not in any way the point or even relevant, but it’s still burninating me up inside. Much like the countryside and all those peasants. Which doesn’t get us to the three stars, the three best of year lists (so far), or the placement on the Morris shortlist. The Story of Owen may not have thatched-roof cottages, but it is mostly full of fantastic fantasticness.

Top of the list for fantastic fantasticness is Siobhan’s voice: it’s wry and funny, quirky without being annoyingly so. She is putting on a performance that rarely feels like a performance — which makes sense. Since this is a story that is all about storytelling and presentation, it makes sense that we would see her use her well-developed storytelling machinations, rather than just tell us she’s developing them.

Having such a strong narrative voice masks a few things, like a slow plot, a complicated world explained by infodumps, and the sometimes tricky history that Johnston has created. The plot takes a while to get started (there’s a real dearth of dragon action for the first ⅓ of the book), but with Siobhan’s entertaining narration, we are treated to tons of asides, true to life moments (her awkwardness with Sadie is endlessly endearing), and the minutiae that make up high school (national anthems, tyrannical teachers, assigned seating). It also allows all kinds of foreshadowing for later events to come in to play without seeming forced.

Other great stuff: This is a genuinely funny story that also made me cry. The relationships that get set up are moving and emotionally powerful and so authentic. There’s cool action. There’s some subtle, solid diversity in the family structures. And the characterization, overall, is really strong: Owen and Siobhan, Lottie and Hannah, Aodhun — all interesting, engaging figures.

There are a couple of things that I’m still mulling over — in a good way, I think, in a way that is a testament to how complicated this story is, and how smart. I’m really intrigued by the public’s many perceptions of the dragon slayers. They inhabit such a gray space: they’re seen as superhero figures often; hard, brave, battle worn soldiers often; cold-hearted mercenaries often. Siobhan ties this to the story of Vlad the Impaler and that world’s version of Dracula, and seems to think that it’s Bram Stoker’s fault that people don’t trust dragon slayers entirely. Look, I’m going for this metaphor, hard; look at the way we support our troops but also feel ambiguous about being at war. But I wonder at the way Siobhan puts all of that on Dracula. In this world, people feel conflicted about dragon slayers because they do conflicting (and sometimes troubling) things; this is supported by the text. This is what Lottie and Aodhan, and others, want to change. Why point solely at Dracula, then? And then why be a Vlad the Impaler defender? (She equates the Eloise and Abelard story with the Dracula story, and then says that both stories are examples of dragon slayers who didn’t “do anything wrong.”) Is it just because Siobhan is young and because she is so close to Owen and obviously supports his important work? Or is it just something that a few minor word choice edits would have fixed? Or is there more coming to explain it all?

This isn’t a perfect book, however. Siobhan’s acceptance of her situation at the end is a little too fast (though it did make me cry at the time, so points for emotional storytelling). And as far as the way dragon slayers do their fighting, I keep going back and forth. I get that precision is needed, but….swords and leather armor? Really?

There are also some threads that get lost in the narrative. Emily and Sadie are a little interchangeable (foils to Siobhan), and are both picked up and dropped at the whim of the plot. In the Eloise and Abelard chapter, there’s a quick mention that implies that Owen and Sadie are greatly affected by the changes Siobhan, Aodhan, Lottie, and Owen himself, are working for: “the same cannot be said of Owen and Sadie.” It’s just left there — in fact, it ends the chapter — and it feels like maybe there was more (or a different) Sadie subplot before. I’m sure there’s more to come, too, but just left hanging there like that, it feels like a dropped stitch. Generally, the whole concept of a bard feels undeveloped. It’s made clear that dragon slayers and bards don’t often work together any longer (thanks, Beatles!), but no one seems to even blink when Siobhan is introduced as Owen’s bard.

Speaking of having a bard — it’s a good thing that when the Thorskard family moves to Trondheim, a very small town, there’s a friendly young talented proto-bard who happens to get detention with Owen so that they can become friends. It’s pretty convenient that all works out — Lottie really seems to encourage their friendship, so were they always looking for a bard? Or were the Thorskards just delighted that one magically appeared? Since the Owen-Siobhan friendship does develop quite authentically, this series of coincidences are easy (for me) to forgive.

Of course, I don’t know how RealCommittee will feel at all. If I were at the table, I’d be excited to talk about all the stuff I loved (and I did: I loved so much of this book). But I’d also be ready to hear any criticisms fellow committee members have to share (because when I so love a book, I want to defend and defend and defend without dealing with the bits that don’t quite work). What about you? Meet me in the comments; let’s talk.

Share
About Sarah Couri

Sarah Couri is a librarian at Grace Church School's High School Division, and has served on a number of YALSA committees, including Quick Picks, Great Graphic Novels, and (most pertinently!) the 2011 Printz Committee. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, GCS, YALSA, or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @scouri or e-mail her at scouri35 at gmail dot com.

Comments

  1. I am so enthusiastic about this book and I cheered when I heard it made the Morris shortlist but I don’t see it as a serious Printz contender, because of the slightly awkward pacing and exposition. It’s a book with such a great voice and such open-heartedness but I feel like the bar for a Printz book is so high (even if they sometimes make weird, silly choices) that it’s really hard for a book that’s long on spirit and slightly less long on technical skill.

    • Sarah Couri says:

      Emily, yes. I wrote my way to that point, but couldn’t quite bring myself to type it up because of all my enthusiasm. Really curious about how it will do in the smaller Morris field. Owen just has such a thoughtful — and really beautiful — take on duty and responsibility and community. <3

      • Agreed–this is a book I really, truly enjoyed. I’m enthusiastic about the second book, and I feel like it’s great for a particular kind of reader who doesn’t always get much aimed at them. But in Printz terms, I would be pleased if it ended up as an Honor book, but I’d also be fairly surprised.

  2. A few months ago, a bunch of my friends on Goodreads all read this one at once. I think I was the only one who didn’t like it. Points for the Canadian voice – my friend who’s Canadian was especially impressed at its authenticity – but I had a lot of problems with it that no one could explain away.

    There were a bunch of little things I disliked – Owen bumping into Siobhan in the hall and her becoming his bard approximately ten seconds later; Sadie and Emily, who take places as the third wheel and can’t seem to live on the page at the same time; Siobhan teasing events that never happen.

    But my real problem was with the ending. Oh how I disliked the ending. 1) I found it ludicrous that Siobhan would have been able to take down the dragon. 2) It was so, so frustrating that she was the only one who got hurt, and that it impacted her defining characteristic – something that’s a huge, huge piece of who she is. 3) She – and everyone else – got over it *way* too quickly. Making plans for her to keep being his bard even if she couldn’t play! When she’s still lying there in a hospital bed, without having started therapy! Siobhan deciding she’s fine right after she wakes up! That read as such a misrepresentation of grief and loss and the healing process and not as a sign of her strength.

    I am still annoyed at that ending, months later.

    I also found it interesting that the story of Owen became the story of Siobhan.

    • It’s funny – that comment of mine was sitting in a tab for a while, and now that I look back at what you wrote, you picked up on a lot of the same things I did! But it sounds like they didn’t bother you.

      • Sarah Couri says:

        Beth, I think I need some book therapy for this one! Because I did love it, really love it. It’s a heart read (TM Stacy Dillon, I think?). But everything you pointed to are problems when discussing it in light of the Printz — heart goes a long way, but not quite far enough at the table.

        I wonder how much of this will be resolved/explained/helped in the second volume? (There’s going to be a part two, right?) Siobhan’s reaction to her injury could come to have nuance and pain and healing and lots of reflection later on — we really just saw her very quickly after waking up. It’s possible that Emily and Sadie will get fleshed out and do more later on, too. Maybe this should have been covered by the series book post from last week!

  3. Emily H (another one) says:

    I have to start by saying I’m basically incapable of looking at this book objectively because I grew up in “Saltrock” and have been so gleeful and happy for a year about just how well Johnston portrayed every cultural and geographical quirk of the area. Heart read for sure for me.

    I can see the weaknesses mentioned & I don’t think it’ll compete for the Printz (though I’d probably do a back handspring if it picked up an Honor). But I’d argue that the weaknesses are mostly made up for by the pure delight of the story (about the power of stories! and friendship! and community!) and strength of the world building.

  4. I loved this book (so very much!) but…did anyone else wonder why in a world where humans have always been hunted by dragons and dragons are attracted to smoke, the industrial age happened as it happened? It seems to me that humans would have developed other, less smoky technologies (steam power, which is less smoke, more liquid, or hydroelectric) as they entered the industrial age. Or that humans would have specialized in building non-flammable buildings from the get-go. It felt jarring to me that in a world that is so dragon-oriented humans hadn’t adapted more to the presence of dragons since they (the dragons) had been there since the beginning of human history. It’s a small point, but in a book so rich with world-building, it felt like a flaw.

  5. Am I the only one who thinks that the “exciting” bits weren’t very exciting? Think of other dragon books, especially Seraphina and Eragon, when there were battle scenes there was real excitement. I think the strength of this book lies in the dragons juxtaposed with modern society…it is hilarious to think about doing dragon-drills at school, for example. But I am with Kirsten, society would have developed differently if every time there was smoke there came a dragon. That said, i did enjoy the book. Printz-worthy? I don’t think so, there are too many problems with it.

    • Sarah Couri says:

      I see what you and Kristen are saying about industrialization + dragons in this version of the world. I actually thought that was a strength, a great commentary on the world — afterall, we ARE currently doing things to the environment that are dangerous, that are illogical, that harm us and the world…but we do them still. Would dragon attacks really deter us? Especially since it’s possible to drive them off easily (relatively speaking)…I’m not so sure.

  6. Just wanted to say I love reading through your blog and look forward to all your posts! Carry on the excellent work!

Speak Your Mind

*