Author: Rosaria Munda
Genre: Young Adult/Fantasy
Version: ARC – ebook
Page Count: 448
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Notable Notables: Dragons! …Kinda
Recommended Readers: Fans of slowburn romances, fantasy politics, and complex interpersonal relationships
Thank you, Net Galley and the publisher, for offering this ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Rosaria Munda’s Fireborne is probably one of the hardest books I’ve ever had to review. I’m actually troubled about how to go about it because my feelings for it are so complicated. The book has qualities that make it absolutely soar while others leave me behind on the ground, bereft and wondering what I missed.
Inspired by Plato’s Republic, Virgil’s The Aeneid, the French Revolution, and the Blitz, Fireborne is an ambitious novel, tackling bloody revolutions and their aftermath, dangerous politics, social inequality, and the complex relationships between people. Oh, and there’s dragons, but strangely, they’re not the highlight.
We follow orphans Annie and Lee, who are now rival dragonriders competing for the honor to become Firstrider. Born a serf, Annie can now do the impossible by being a dragonrider, something the old regime never would have permitted. However, the person she most has to convince of her worth isn’t government officials, former patrician kids, or her instructor; it’s herself. Lee, meanwhile, is an aristocrat by birth, but he’s managed to keep his identity hidden, his natural confidence and air of power allowing him to rise through the ranks of the very regime that slaughtered his Dragonlord family. No one is prepared when survivors of Dragonlord families, including Lee’s, resurface with dragons of their own, declaring war to reclaim their lost country. Both Lee and Annie have to decide what and who they are loyal to, even as their relationship grows ever-more complicated.
I want to focus first on what Fireborne does amazingly well, and that’s interpersonal relationships. They are messy, rich, and nuanced, both between our two leads but also between those who interact with them. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen a YA book dedicate as much care to its side characters, but Crissa, Duck, Cor, Power, Rock, and Atreus all live on the pages they are featured. They exist and they matter.
Part of the success has to do with the way Munda writes character interactions, and that is thoroughly but without feeling weighted down. Dialogue is punctuated well with description and internal monologuing, to the point where I never thought I was getting too much or too little of something. Munda’s care in writing body language is especially something I want to compliment because each case felt personal from character to character, and she does not solely rely on the overused examples of body language we read about all the time, aka what the eyes are doing. As a result, each character interaction is both entertaining to read while also showing the reader something interesting about each character.
It’s the way these characters interact and how so many relationships are interwoven or become tangled that also make the politics in the book so intriguing. You aren’t just reading about politics; you are experiencing how the characters react to politics, especially as they begin to clash with their ideals and understandings of the world and this new, supposedly better regime they’re living in. As you read, you start to have your own reactions—of anger, of disgust, of hopeless logic and bitter acceptance, but always with the questions of “Can’t this be better? Can’t we do better? How?”
Can I also give Munda a round of applause for Power? He’s an antagonist who starts off being very Draco Malfoy-ish but then has his own incredible development into something more complicated. Does he get better as a person? Absolutely not, and that’s why I like him. There is so much going on inside the mind of this smug, bitter, sadistic little shit, and I am ready to see the full scope of what is up with him and what he’s trying to accomplish here.
As for our two protagonists, Annie and Lee, I enjoy them both in varying amounts—it mostly just depends on what is going on with the plot at the time. I was rooting for their respective journeys, and I still am. Whenever they had to directly contest each other, I had a hard time choosing who I wanted to come out on top. Often, I didn’t make a choice because I liked what possibilities they both could offer the narrative. I love the ambition and self-determination Annie found within herself, but I also love Lee’s surety, how it splinters and how he suffers for it. He’s also the rare deposed aristocrat who isn’t actually seeking vengeance and is instead trying to atone for the wrong that his family committed, and that was refreshing.
Still, there is tension between them that lingers from the old regime, especially the idea of serfs deferring to their betters in society. Annie and Lee don’t treat each other this way, but there are slip-ups that sound eerily like the old ways. There are awkward interactions that still carry the weight and air of that former social hierarchy that cause spines to stiffen and feelings to get hurt without anyone meaning to do so. It was a good way of showing that, just because the old powers aren’t in power anymore, it doesn’t mean that the world changed completely overnight or even within the last decade. There are demeaning traditions that still linger and terrible memories that are still too fresh to forget.
It’s a shame, then, that I was more interested in Annie and Lee’s complicated friendship than I was in their slowburn romance; strangely, I enjoyed the flings or “if only I felt that way about you” relationships they were each having on the side more. I felt like those were occurring so much more organically, but maybe the next book will convince me. The thing that took me out of Annie and Lee’s will they/won’t they relationship completely in Fireborne is their contrived dance at the ball.
I say contrived, not because it is a dance or because it is at a formal function. I say contrived because, as the two dragonriders contending for Firstrider, they are both expected to lead the dance seemingly out of nowhere, and this book is Straight. Of the top four dragonriders competing for Firstrider, Annie is the only girl among them, so if she had lost her second round? Guess Lee and Power would’ve been dancing together, which I’m fine with, but I can tell the author didn’t think that far because every other dancing couple is heterosexual. There’s also no reference to it being tradition or anything. The book needed a romantic scene with Lee and Annie to build tension, or try to, so it coughed one up.
It could have still been a good scene. The dance itself is supposed to be this beautiful, elaborate thing, but I barely got any description of it. That is a problem throughout Fireborne. Munda either wouldn’t cover or would gloss over scenes I really wanted to read, especially in the first half, and this makes the book drag. Fortunately, the narrative picks up in the second half, but I definitely pushed myself to get there. In the end, having a stronger second half might be the preferred option, but it’s also a gamble when it comes to retaining readers.
Fortunately, I held on, and I’m glad I did because the ending is absolutely explosive, tragic, emotional, and adrenaline-inducing. Lee’s final confrontation as well as Annie’s convinced me of the merits of this book and that I should definitely pursue the sequel when it comes. I have a feeling that some significant groundwork has been laid here for a big payoff later.
Especially when it comes to the new regime. There were times when I thought both the characters and the author believed that—with the meritocracy based on “intelligence” instead of birthright and the “necessary” censorship and propaganda—that the new regime is worlds better than the old. From my eyes, that just wasn’t true—they’re both pretty terrible—but the more you read, the more characters start to question things. After all, war has a way of splintering the rose-colored vision those in authority like to hand their citizens, and the cracks certainly showed up.
But the war is slow and not much takes place in this first book, so don’t expect an action book with Fireborne. It’s far more character-driven than plot. Even the addition of dragons does nothing to change that fact.
I’ll tell you now that if you’re looking for a novel with a clear bond between rider and dragon—like those found in Eragon and His Majesty’s Dragon—you won’t find that here. The dragons are mostly just tools to make the war look cooler. In fact, here, the dragons are still growing so they’re described as mostly warhorse-sized, and I can tell you they have about as much presence and agency as a warhorse does. Their riders will give them the occasional pat or will rebuff their mental outreach to remind you that they’re there, but that’s it.
Yes, the mental link and emotion-sharing dragons have with their riders is there but minimal, and these dragons don’t speak. Will they later? Who knows. This book was light on lore, so I can’t speak to what the dragons here will eventually become capable of. The characters didn’t seem to have much understanding themselves, like those studying wandlore in Harry Potter. You use it, but you don’t really know why certain things happen the way they do, and maybe that’s deliberate. Maybe characters and readers alike have much more to learn about these dragons.
So should you read this book? I say yes, especially if you like character-driven stories full of gray morality and politics and the aftershocks of violent revolution. I actually wish I could rate this book as a four-star at least, but I just had one too many problems to be able to let it all slide. I definitely came to like this book, but I didn’t really like it or love it even though I did really like parts of it. However, does Fireborne have me psyched for its sequel? Absolutely!
I think Munda and her characters Annie and Lee are just getting started.