Fireborne is told from the alternating perspectives of childhood friends and orphans Lee sur Pallor and Antigone “Annie” sur Aela. Lee is the sole survivor of his family, the ruling Stormscourge elites, who were overthrown just as brutally as they ruled. Annie, on the other hand, is the sole survivor of her family at the hands of Lee’s tyrannical dragon riding family. Their friendship, history together, and Annie’s knowledge of Lee’s secret identity as Leo Stormscourge provides an interesting and suspenseful undercurrent that ripples throughout Fireborne and could even change the very history of their world.
“Known now as Guardians, the new regime’s dragonriders are lowborn, commoners, even former serfs. No long the sons of dragonlords. Except for me, though I’m the only who knows that. Because in the wake of the Revolution, to be dragonborn is to be wanted for dead. I was born Leo, son of Leon, dragonlord of Stormscourge House and Drakarch of the Far Highlands--but since the orphanage, I’ve been Lee.”
I really enjoyed their characterization and their struggle with each other’s identities. Fireborne does a great job of making Annie and Lee foils for each other, with Annie being lowborn, and Lee secretly being ex-royalty. The fact that the two formed such an unlikely alliance in order to survive and seeing that loyalty to each other called into question not only as Lee’s family resurfaces to reclaim their throne, but also when the two must compete to become Firstrider of the new regime’s dragon fleet, is a truly unique and riveting experience to read. Author Rosaria Munda does a great job of making this not just a political conflict of interests, but a personal one, as both Annie and Lee struggle to come to terms with their conflicting pasts, families, ideals, and what it means for their relationship and their new Regime.
“I don’t blame Lee for spilling over, and I don’t blame him for the look of longing that transformed his face he first saw [his family]. It doesn’t take a stretch of imagination to understand what he must have felt. I know the ache of an orphan’s loneliness; I know what it is to crave the comfort of kin. I blame Lee for what followed….I blame him for the fact that I still want to trust him.”
This complex relationship is set against a backdrop of excellent world-building. Munda does an amazing job of setting up believable political systems--and I was not surprised to discover she studied political theory at Princeton--and even more believable reactions to them by not just her main characters, but the privileged elite, the rulers of the new regime, and the commoners. She weaves these reactions into the story effortlessly, by giving all of her characters relevant and differing backgrounds or traumas--the whole way down to the most loathsome of characters and those with even the smallest of roles.
“The lesser of two evils. It’s a far cry from what I had hoped we’d be.”
I loved the political backdrop of the new Regime and the slow realization of the main characters, who find themselves thrust into positions of powers, that newer isn’t always better. So often in novels and popular culture, we see that Rebellion is the only Answer that Solves Everything and to see the main characters question that everything they believe in--the censorship, the newly established class and worth system--isn’t any better than the one they left behind is the kind of idea you see more often in adult fantasy novels than in young adult ones. I honestly cannot wait to see where future installments in the series takes this idea and what it means for Annie and Lee and their dragons.
But the author isn’t just fantastic at developing political foundations for Fireborne--she does a great job at establishing her fantasy world too. In a post Dragonriders of Pern and Game of Thrones world, there is a wealth of dragon fantasy in popular culture and it is hard to incorporate these mythological creatures in stories in a way that hasn’t been done before. But the author still managed to utillize her dragons in a fresh way. In Fireborne, children are brought to dragons for a Choosing ceremony, to see if they can form a bond with what dragons are left and become Guardians of the new Regime.
“He’d heard it said before that a kind of magic came with a dragon Choosing you--that the dragon bound you to it, that you formed a connection that was deep and full of an old magic.”
Though a Choosing ceremony isn't exactly new, what is innovative about this resulting bond between dragons and their Chosen in Fireborne, is that the pair can become even stronger in what is known as a “spillover.” When strong emotions flare in the rider, the dragon and the rider, share everything. It can be a great advantage or a great weakness, but it allows them to communicate seamlessly. Throughout Fireborne, there are hints to the past, when Dragons could be summoned without a whistle and as the bonds between Lee and Annie and their dragons grow, I think we will see new abilities emerge. I also liked the interesting nature of dragon’s “sparking” or maturing enough to breathe actual fire, rather than simple ash. Most dragons in popular culture are born with the ability to breathe fire, so I thought it was a unique mechanism, especially with how it related to the military might of the new regime. I also loved how the author incorporated the separate language of Dragonstongue simultaneously to allow riders to communicate with their dragons and also as a product of the old Regime and its supporters.
Though I loved Fireborne and its world-building, politics, moral dilemmas and portrayal of dragons, I struggled at times with just the codependecy of Annie and Lee’s relationship. Finally, I realized that this exposition made the characters even more believable, given the trauma that they had been through, but it is certainly not the healthiest relationship I’ve ever read. Despite this, I’m still very interested to see what future ramifications will come of their attachment to one another. Similarly, I also did not enjoy the love square that Lee and Annie found themselves in with fellow Guardians and friends, Crissa and Duck. It’s obvious to readers that Lee and Annie will be end game, so I found the introduction of other love interests rather tedious, tropey, and a waste of time. These are the main reasons I had to drop my rating to four stars. Otherwise, I cannot say enough good things about Fireborne and highly recommend picking this novel up if you’re looking for a richly imagined fantasy novel, with not only complex characters, but also far-reaching moral and political themes.
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