Author: Rosaria Munda
Publication date: October 15, 2019
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy
My rating: 4.5/5 stars
Until I started reading this book, I had forgotten a) how much I love books with dragons, and b) how long it had been since I had read one. With a fantastic blend of politics, questions of personal allegiance, dragon fights, ethical quandaries, and a dash of romance, Fireborne ended up being everything I hoped it would be.
So, quick summary. Callipolis was once ruled by three dragonborn rulers, dragon riders descended from long lines of nobility. When their power corrupted and they turned cruel, those leaders were overthrown in a great revolution led by Atreus, a man now known as the First Protector. Atreus implemented a new merit-based social structure and system of government, where performance on a standardized exam would determine one’s future career and social standing, enabling peasants to rise above their given lot and making sure the wealthy are not guaranteed privilege forever.
Enter Lee and Annie, two orphans who befriended each other as children and have tested into the highest level of society, the Guardians, or dragon riders. Annie is from a poor family, while Lee is hiding the fact that he was one of the few surviving members of the dragonborn houses, but they feel their primary allegiance to each other. After years of training, the two are now among the final contenders for the position of Firstrider, leader of the armed forces. Both have tremendous motivations to win, but with Lee battling the need to hide his identity and Annie facing her own insecurities, the two don’t have an easy path in store. And with shifting friendships, questionable allegiances, and complicated feelings, in addition to the looming threat of an outside attack on Atreus’s fledgling regime, the path forward is anything but clear.
Obviously, one of the biggest selling points of this book is the dragons, and to be sure, the creatures are omnipresent. While the emotional, almost-telepathic connection between dragon and rider is not a new trope, Munda executes it quite well, with an added twist of the loss of control that accompanies strong emotional contact. Beyond just being companions of their riders and tools for defense, though, dragons also serve as a very visible illustration of power in this society, a reminder of the abuse of their might in recent history and a simultaneous reinforcement of the principle that anyone can advance if they just test well enough. They symbolize both corruption and change, and the people’s reactions to them reflect how hazy the line between the two can get. In other words, this isn’t just a book of dragons fighting each other; it’s a book of people fighting for, with, and against dragons and all that they represent.
I loved the character development in this book. Though I will concede that Lee and Annie often had similar-sounding narrative voices (part of why I deducted half a star), their perspectives were clearly different, including differences in their individual understandings and recollections of specific events. Instances of misunderstanding and miscommunication abound in this novel, not just between our two protagonists, but among all the characters, and the fallout of these moments paves the (admittedly rocky) road to growth for Lee and Annie alike, both learning how they can change and what they need to accept in order to survive. Tensions run high as they struggle with all of their conflicting loyalties about who and what to prioritize in a world where some choices are, in fact, mutually exclusive. And on that note, what I most enjoyed about the way Munda wrote these characters was that their anxieties and internal dilemmas were depicted in vivid detail, making their struggles at once easy to understand and hard to find answers for. Because, of course, very little in life is all-good or all-evil; most choices are shades of gray. And when the political becomes personal (or vice versa), those shades get even harder to distinguish.
And speaking of shades of gray, the other element of this book that was extremely well-rendered was the political intrigue and commentary. This is set in a world in the aftermath of a revolution. For all the books that talk about overthrowing evil and removing corrupt people from power, there are remarkably few that follow what happens next and just how hard it is to lead well, but Munda deftly tackles the complexities of the subject. A supposedly-better system of government is in place, but in under a decade, already cracks have begun to emerge in it: ways the test may not be fair (for example, there is a brief mention of a character with dyslexia that hurts her ability to test), the dubious nature of propaganda and censorship in the name of patriotism, the impossibility of extinguishing old ideas, and more. What happens when those in power start to resemble (and resort to the methods of) those they sought to replace? It happens around the globe, really, because humans are inherently flawed. We can’t have a perfect society or a perfect system of government; we just have to do our best with what we’re given. As an interesting aside, according to the author, this specific element of the book–that is, the concept of a utopia riddled with its own inherent flaws–is one that was inspired by Plato’s Republic. As someone who has actually read The Republic before, I can totally see where she is coming from, and it is a fascinating take on the idea. And yet people say the classics aren’t relevant anymore…
In theory, a book with a lot of political intrigue can easily become slow, but in general, I didn’t find that to be the case here. There were some moments where the pacing dragged a bit, especially when characters got a little too sucked up in their own internal dilemmas, or when the plot turned into just a lot of talking, but between the intermittent dragon fights, the flashbacks to past horrors, the clandestine meetings, the political strategy sessions fraught with tension, and the direct threats of external violence, the story manages to move along at a nice clip–slow enough that you can really sink into it, but fast enough that you don’t want to stop turning the pages.
So, one more part that I’m sure everyone will ask about: Romance? Yes, it’s there. No, it is not a central focus of the book, which seemed appropriate to me (though I know some blurbs pitch romance as being a large element in it, which may lead to disappointment for some readers when they find out there isn’t as much as they hoped for). The thing is, I love that the romance in this book is so nuanced. The dynamic between Lee and Annie is beyond complicated: best friends who care so much about each other but are vying for the same position, and could potentially end up on opposite sides of an impending war, and also are technically not allowed to get romantically involved because of their position, and ALSO don’t want to start talking about their possible feelings for each other because it’s just too dang complicated? I AM SO HERE FOR IT. But their relationship doesn’t exist in a vacuum, either: their classmates add further layers of complexity, with unrequited crushes, questionable decisions made at parties, and the mutterings of peers fueling further confusion and misunderstanding. Instead of being a simple thing that provides solace in a complex world, it is acknowledged as something that cannot be completely separated from larger choices and allegiances. It’s slow, it’s realistic, and it’s wonderful. (Bonus points: there is no insta-love! This is built on an emotional connection and extensive personal history! My favorite!!)
All that is to say, Fireborne is a fantastic debut novel that succeeds through nuances of both character and plot, making for a truly enthralling (if sometimes emotionally painful) read.
Thank you to Penguin Random House for providing me with an eARC via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review!