Books

Together We Burn (Isabel Ibañez) – Book Review

One of the things that puts a lot of folks off fantasy stories is that they can often feel very similar. Thanks to the proliferation of European and especially British inspired fantasy there are a huge number of fantasy tales that take place in old castles, have armoured knights, and are filled with other stereotypes. But in recent years there’s been an increase in fantasy stories inspired by the histories, cultures, and myths of other places and people, and Titan Books’ latest release does this wonderfully.

Together We Burn takes readers to Hispalia, where we meet Zarela Zalvidar. Zarela is the daughter of one of the most beloved flamenco dancers in the city, and her father is a famous dragonador. At the start of the book we witness Zarela lose her mother when one of the dragons breaks free during a performance, burning her mother to death. Years later, another disaster hits her family’s dragon fighting arena. Several dragons break free, killing members of the audience. Some are killed, but others flee. Sadly, one of the dragons injures her father, leaving Zarela alone to take responsibility.

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With the arena in need of repairs, the leaders of the city demanding that she provide compensation to the families of those lost, her father fighting for his life, and next to no money left, Zarela makes a bold decision: she will fight dragons in her family arena. With the help of the handsome but aloof dragon hunter Arturo, Zarela is determined to become the best dragon fighter she can be, restore her family legacy, and find those responsible for the disaster.

Together We Burn is a delightful fantasy story inspired by Spanish culture that feels fresh, original, and incredibly inventive. The world that Ibañez has created feels very similar to our own in a lot of ways. This isn’t a high fantasy novel with people of various races, wizards fighting with magic, or end of the world doom. Instead, it seems to ask a simple question: ‘How would society be different if dragons existed?’ And it turns out, not hugely. I loved that a lot of the time reading Together We Burn it felt like I was reading a historical novel. With a few slight changes it could have easily been a book set within the real world, and I think that’s a huge strength here, as it allows readers an easy access.

Hispalia is very similar to what people know about Spain, with similar architecture, culture, food, and language. There are parts of the book where the dialogue shifts into Spanish, when characters sit down to eat its recognisable food, and you can feel Ibañez’s love for the culture and history bleeding off the page. There are so many fantasy books where it feels like the setting comes as a secondary thought, but in Together We Burn the world around the characters feels so alive, so well thought out that it becomes a delight to read.

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The characters are also a wonderful part of the story, and Zarela is a really good protagonist. She’s young, only eighteen, and falls into the category of ‘young female heroine’ that is very popular in YA books, but she reads as so much older. She feels mature in ways that a lot of teen characters don’t. She’s had a life where she’s had to grow up quickly, and the events of the book are a big part of that too. So many of the criticisms you see about YA heroines, that they don’t think things through, that they’re too emotional, or that they make bad mistakes, don’t apply here. Zarela has a level head on her shoulders, she isn’t impulsive, she doesn’t really make too many mistakes, and she makes for a great lead.

The other characters around Zarela are great too, and there’s a wonderful collection of folks in this book. Whether it’s her best friend, or her father, I was so pleasantly surprised with how well thought out and layered everyone was. A lot of the characters began feeling like they were going to fall into traditional, tropey roles, but Ibañez throws some wonderful curve-balls at readers and ended up subverting my expectations more than once. So many of the interactions and story beats took surprising turns and went in directions that I wasn’t expecting.

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I can’t talk about the book without talking about one of the stand-out parts, however. The dragons. The world of Together We Burn has one of the more unique relationships with dragons that I’ve ever seen. Yes, there are wild dragons that stalk the wilderness between towns, and sometimes attack the city, but the main interactions that people in Hispalia have come from the dragon fighting. As the name dragonador implies, the dragons in this book take the place of bulls, and the dragon fighting copies the patterns and cultural place of bull fighting. The dragons become more than just monster, they become a part of this world, a part of their history and culture. It’s unique, fascinating, and always amazing when you see one of the characters step into the ring with one of these monsters.

Together We Burn is a wonderfully unique kind of fantasy book. It builds a stunningly well thought out and layered world, inhabited by characters that subvert expectations, go against convention, and prove to be delightful throughout. The book is filled with lore, mystery, drama, and romance, and is sure to tick a lot of boxes for folks. Whether you’re looking for strong female protagonists, unique fantasy worlds, or tense monster scenes, Together We Burn will provide it.

Together We Burn is out now from Titan Books.

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