Fireborne (The Aurelian Cycle #1) by Rosaria Munda

This was such a surprisingly grounded, even-handed look at revolution and its toll, emotional and material, on the survivors. While very much a cross between the Harry Potter and Red Rising books — except with dragons instead of magic or advanced technology — it felt at its heart closer akin to Jo Walton’s The Just City, another story of radical experiment in government that threatens to go horribly awry. Whereas TJC was a cautionary tale, however, Fireborne is an epic in the heroic mold, eventually becoming as lyrical and deeply moving as the classical poetry it “quotes”, inspired by Virgil’s Aeneid (also, the made-up poetry was beautiful and appropriate, which already sets Fireborne head and shoulders over most of its peers that try and fail to do the same.)

Told from the points of view of Lee, last surviving son of an aristocratic family murdered in the revolution, and Annie, orphaned daughter of a peasant family murdered because they could not meet their pre-revolutionary lord’s production quota, the story begins as the two have advanced through training to become squadron leaders of dragon riders. They and several others will square off in sanctioned tournaments to see who becomes flight commander and de facto heir to Atreus, the revolutionary leader who betrayed his patrician roots to lead the uprising. But not all of the previous regime were exterminated: some survived even as Lee did, and are plotting their vengeance in exile.

Lee and Annie are best friends but have a complicated relationship burdened by rivalry and secrets. I liked that the emotions were never pat, and especially liked how the friendship between Annie and Crissa worked out. To be honest, I thought the beginning of this book rather shaky, but around the time that Cor yells at Lee that Crissa doesn’t deserve to be a consolation prize, I was all in (even tho I maybe envisioned Crissa as Hailey Bieber from then on out, lol.) There are parts I wish had worked out differently, but what did happen worked in service to the story being told, one less of dragons and their heroic riders — tho that was engrossing too — and more of the real costs of regime change and war.

Rosaria Munda doesn’t make the easy choices when it comes to her narrative, which gives us readers a far richer experience than works by authors who go for tidy conclusions. Fireborne is meaningful social commentary in the guise of fantasy fiction, and I was dead impressed by Ms Munda’s skill at examining particularly the French and Russian revolutions through this lens. I’m very much looking forward to reading more, tho am also so, so happy that this book reads complete on its own. Cliffhangers are all well and good but stories that can stand on their own are just so much more satisfying. Really terrific debut.

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