Concept Over Character
By Tim CummingsJuly 18, 2020
Burn by Patrick Ness
It is 1957 in the Pacific Northwest (a locale Ness revisits often). A motherless, mixed-race teenager named Sarah Dewhurst lives with her overprotective father on a failing farm in Frome, Washington. To assist them, they hire a dragon named Kazimir, a scholarly, wry, and mischievous example of the “Russian Blue” breed. In this world, dragons and humans have come to a coexistence agreement in which they have limited contact with one another, the dragons preferring to live alone, far away from human civilization. Nevertheless, if someone needs a dragon, they can hire one, entering into a permissible, not to say clandestine, work contract. In this case, Kazimir helps Sarah and her father by burning and moving trees on their farm. He arrives with ulterior motives, however, mostly having to do with Sarah.
Meanwhile, there are zealous cults that worship dragons, their members called “Believers.” Believers live and die by the doctrines set forth by a goddess entity known as Mitera Thea (divine mother), who has trained her followers to honor the sacredness and superiority of dragons. Currently, she is guiding a young revolutionary named Malcolm in a bid to stop an impending war between men and dragons. That simmering conflict is connected with a Russian plot to launch a satellite meant to spy on Americans — thus exacerbating prevailing tensions, since dragons do not want to be spied upon. Malcolm is charged with assassinating Sarah because a prophecy popular among the Believers holds that the girl is key to stopping the looming apocalypse. He departs his commune in the North on foot, with limited time in which to end the unsuspecting girl’s life.
Along the way, Malcolm meets a dreamy Guatemalan drifter named Nelson, who is on the lam from his homophobic family. Malcolm realizes he is gay after the two experience a night of sexual passion. Malcolm’s upbringing does not involve shame regarding sexuality, whereas Nelson’s does, and this shadows his ability to love. His longing for companionship is further inhibited after he sees Malcolm, in full assassin mode, commit an unspeakably violent crime.
The first of two parts to the novel rushes dizzyingly to its culmination: an impressively rendered showdown in which the many characters see their destinies intertwined. It will make a great set piece should the novel ever be adapted for film (J. A. Bayona’s 2016 adaptation of Ness’s 2011 heartbreaker, A Monster Calls, is astonishing). The action eventually uncovers an ancient dragon relic that is a portal to another world.
But this is where Burn falters: the parallel universe Ness creates is too reminiscent of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (1995–2000). Whereas Pullman’s treatment of strange yet familiar parallel worlds is engaging and creative, Ness’s is not. Instead, we meet doppelgängers of all the characters, some of whom have died and yet now live again, and others who are alive but have already died in the other world. Ness may be positing some notion related to second chances, but in light of everything else happening in the novel, that isn’t exactly clear.
Heavy on plot but light on pathos, Burn ultimately fails to ignite, especially where it most needs to, in the central narrative of a young woman prophesied to save the world. Ness gives us a rather lackluster protagonist in Sarah Dewhurst. It’s not that she’s ineffectual — she’s feisty, outspoken, goodhearted enough — but she pales in comparison to several of the book’s many compelling supporting characters: Malcolm, the culty gay assassin; Kazimir, the scholarly dragon; and unexpected love interest Nelson, whose fate becomes woefully intertwined with Malcolm’s.
But even they cannot hold a flame to Agent Woolf, an ambitious, wisecracking female FBI agent on the trail of the assassin, whose thrilling transformation in the second part is the high point of the book. This is where Ness excels, with his visceral ability to voice entities, monsters, misfits, and destroyers. Sarah, by contrast, gets lost in the shuffle, her role in the prophecy never made clear. In the denouement, Sarah herself even admits it didn’t really have anything to do with her.
The story would have been better suited to a more extended treatment, along the lines of Ness’s renowned trilogy, Chaos Walking (2008–2010). This would have allowed for a more leisurely building up of theme, world, and character. The book also would have benefited from some edgy illustrations. (Ness’s 2018 novel And the Ocean Was Our Sky featured exquisite drawings by Rovina Cai.) While reading Burn, I kept seeing The Iron Giant in my head, Brad Bird’s beloved 1999 animated movie about an extraterrestrial robot discovered in Maine in 1957, and the little boy who befriends it and coaxes out its humanity. That story is gentler, but the look and feel of it are similar to what Ness seems to be attempting with Burn.
I hope Ness returns to the emotional vulnerability of his earlier works — the aching power of A Monster Calls or the psychological freak-out of More Than This (2013), in which complex world-building coexists with essential human needs and desires. I want to care about his people deeply, as I did when I read those novels. But his last several outings, I feel, have favored concept over character.
After contemplating Patrick Ness’s Burn for a few days, I still don’t quite know what it’s about. When a YA novel about dragons threads into its narrative issues of racism and xenophobia in 1950s America, throwing together the Cold War, the Russians, satellites, religious cults, prophecies, homosexuality, and parallel universes, surely it must be trying to say something. The message may have gone over my head like some great winged beast headed for the darkening clouds.
Tim Cummings holds an MFA in Writing for Young People from Antioch University Los Angeles. His work has appeared in F(r)iction, Lunch Ticket, Meow Meow Pow Pow, and From Whispers to Roars. His essay “You Have Changed Me Forever” (2019) won Critical Read’s “Origins” contest and earned their nomination for the Pushcart Prize.
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