The Story of Owen


E. K. Johnston


Fantasy / Science Fiction


Date Reviewed:

January 9th, 2021

his novel is the story of Owen, a high-school boy living in a small town (Trondheim) in Canada. Owen lives in the same world as us, the book takes place approximately in the year 2011, except his world has one big difference than ours. In Owen's world, dragons exist. Dragons are abundant and aggressive. Dragons are attracted to burning carbon, so any fossil fuel emissions are likely to attract a dragon attack. To battle the dragons, there are dragon-slayers. These are people who fight and kill the dragons when they attack. Owen is destined to be a dragon-slayer himself because his parents were dragon-slayers.

I believe that there is an unspoken contract between author and reader. The author will put their best effort into the writing, seeking to entertain, developing memorable characters, and thinking up an intricate plot. But some authors violate that contract, and don't make an apparent effort to deliver their best work. I feel Johnston "mails in" The Story of Owen. Given the cool idea of dragons harrowing our modern civilization, how would things be different? According to Johnston, nothing would be different! People would live in suburbs and drive gas-burning cars everywhere, not taking the slightest precaution that going to the grocery story could cost them their life.

The lazy world-building in this book troubled me alot. The author apparently put very little thought into the effect hordes of dangerous dragons would have on humanity. Why aren't the cars all electric? Why aren't they at least armored? (The protagonists in the book at one point discuss driving a hybrid, but hybrid cars still emit carbon). Why not live in fortified villages, with lookouts and radar?

A puzzling part of the plot is that the dragon slayers fight the dragons with broadswords. The dragons land on the ground and then the dragon-slayer runs up and sticks a broadsword into its chest. Yet in this world, humans have iPhones and internet and all of the other inventions that we enjoy. So why don't the dragon-slayers use rocket propelled grenades, heavy caliber machine guns or some other powerful weapons that would kill dragons at a distance? The story describes how the Gulf War was just fought, and it certainly wasn't waged with swords instead of guns. The author never even attempts to provide an explanation why modern arms are not employed against the dragons. Using a sword is foolish. If you must might with medieval weapons, at least try a powerful crossbow! Why do the dragons land to fight? Why don't they just fly over the dragon-slayers and roast them?

Owen is equipped with a broadsword, armor and shield which were hammered out in a medieval forge by Hannah, his aunt. Hannah uses 16th century technology to make Owen his weapons, but why not use modern machining tools? Why not make the sword out of lightweight titanium? Again, Johnston offers no explanation to the reader.

Owen is destined to be a dragon-slayer because his parents are. Why? Dragon-slayers can only be the descendants of dragon-slayers? It makes no sense. The Story of Owen is narrated by Siobhan, a teenage girl at Owen's high school. Siobhan's father is an accountant, and there is no expectation that she must also be an accountant.

There are four different species of dragons, but they all act the same manner. All of the dragons are attracted to carbon emissions. But dragons are fire-breathers! Why would they need to hunt, why not just light anything flammable in the landscape on fire? No need to fly around seeking carbon-emitting vehicles. Just burn down some trees and the dragon will make itself happy. There ought not be a single tree or bushing standing, dragons should have scorched the earth to cinders by now.

Siobhan is a student at Owen's high school. Together, Owen and Siobhan face the peril of an increasing dragon presence. It seems that the dragons have established a nesting ground on a nearby island. If those dragons hatch, then their hometown will be swarmed with dragons. So they make up a hare-brained scheme. A fire will be started - and every single dragon will be leave the nesting ground, allowing Siobhan and Owen to use flame throwers to burn all the unguarded eggs, because of course dragon eggs are flammable (Oh wait, eggs aren't flammable). None of the four dragon species digs nests to bury their eggs, they just leave on their eggs exposed on the surface, because the cold Canadian weather is good for hatching eggs? (Oh wait, reptiles bury their eggs...) None of the four species of dragons guards their nests. All four species lay their eggs right next to the other species, because that makes sense - like wolves and foxes sharing a den (Oh wait, that never happens in the wild...). There is so little logic in this story that it is disappointing. Didn't an editor point out to Johnston how implausible all of these story points sound?

I think I was fooled by the awards given to this book; I thought that meant this would be a good read. According to Amazon, the following accolades were heaped upon this disappointing story:

Los Angeles Times Book Prize Finalist

Kirkus Prize for Young People's Literature Finalist

Kirkus Reviews Best Teen Book of the Year

Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year

William C. Morris Debut Award Finalist

YALSA Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults

I do not understand how this half-hearted effort at story telling could merit any plaudits. Once I put the book down for the evening, I found it difficult to pick up and resume reading. I finished at least six other novels in between the time I started this and finally slogged to the finish line. The Story of Owen book is not recommended. There are hundreds of better "young adult" novels out there, with much better plots, characters and world-construction. Try The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander, that is a much better story!