Burn by Patrick Ness is a clever alternate reality story set in the 1950s. This reality is extremely close to our own except for one
not so small thing. Dragons exist in this world.
Yet, for as dangerous and unknown as dragons are in this world, they are not the biggest threat to peace. Rather, the danger comes from the USSR and the satellite they soon will be launching into space. This alternate reality version of the Cold War is a little colder and much more of an imminent threat, as the idea of a satellite has both countries on red alert.
With this as the backdrop, enter Sarah Dewhurst and her father. In a desperate attempt to keep the family farm, Sarah’s dad hires a dragon to help with the farm work that two people cannot finish. The dragon, Kazimir, immediately draws Sarah’s curiosity as his words and actions are not what she expected. In fact, it appears that Kazimir has a bit of an agenda regarding Sarah, one that involves a prophecy of world-ending magnitude.
At the same time, Malcolm enters the picture having grown up within a religious sect that worships dragons. These Believers send Malcolm on a mission, the consequences of which also impact the prophecy. As he traverses the world, one in which he has not spent much time, he learns much about himself and comes to realize that not all is as it seems.
In true Ness fashion, Burn seems a simple story but has layers of complexity to it that cover a multitude of topics. For, it is not just about a dragon prophecy and a race to save the world. It also covers racism, gender bias, sexuality discrimination, and extreme religious zeal, bound together in a world of magic. All of this while two countries flex their muscles getting ready to launch the world into a nuclear war.
The characters we meet are ordinary people. No one has superpowers or magic abilities that would set them above others. They are people just trying to live and find happiness in a world that has not been kind to them. They don’t ask for involvement in Believer affairs nor want anything to do with the dragon prophecy. Their reactions to such involvement are more than a little believable, which makes us love them all the more for their realism. They are you and me.
To me, Burn is a classic Patrick Ness story. It has a touch of magic to it, but its power and strength lie in its perfectly ordinary characters who have to deal with that magic and its ramifications. He never preaches, nor are his messages complicated or unrealistic. Plus, he ends his story with just enough hope to make you appreciate the journey on which he takes the characters, something we all need right now.