In Patrick Ness’s latest novel, dragons exist, in all their fire-breathing glory. The initial setting is 1950s America, against the backdrop of the cold war. An uneasy human/dragon truce has been in place for hundreds of years, but the community’s distrust of outsiders runs high. Racist cops patrol the roads, using violence to intimidate the weak. The heroine, 16-year-old Sarah, suffers the worst of such prejudices: her parents were in a mixed marriage, and she’s in love with a local Japanese boy. Her mother has recently died, and her father is struggling to keep their farm going. To help, he hires a Russian blue dragon to clear some fields by burning them: payment, of course, is in gold.
Ness is on tip-top form here, deftly propelling a complex plot. Sarah seems to be at the nexus of a prophecy about the end of the world, and a young assassin named Malcolm, part of a dangerous cult that worships dragons, sets out on her trail; two FBI agents are close behind. Filmic scenes offer striking images: a car flying through the air in the claws of a dragon, a shoot-out straight from Quentin Tarantino.
Romance and relationships provide an emotional counterpoint to the action. Malcolm falls for a Guatemalan boy called Nelson, on the run from his bigoted parents. Sarah’s friendship with the blue dragon, Kasimir, is akin to that of the boy and the monster in Ness’s Carnegie-winning A Monster Calls, allowing the author to explore power in all its manifestations. The most interesting character is an FBI agent known as Woolf: her metamorphosis is a startling moment that hurls the book towards its climax.
Ness’s borrowings from previous children’s literature add to the strength of his narrative. CS Lewis’s transformation of Eustace Scrubb into a dragon because of his greedy, hoarding nature underpins the movement of the main plot. Philip Pullman’s subtle knife, which opens up portals between worlds, is transformed into a claw taken from the dragon goddess herself, transporting the main characters into a parallel universe.
We know from legends and fairytales that dragons can be tricked. Ness shows that although monsters exist in every world, there are many more who wish to overcome them; and that even in the smoking ruins of civilisation, there is room for hope.
• Burn is published by Walker (RRP £12.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on orders over £15.