Inspired by medieval Spain and infused with a heady Hispanic spirit, Isabel Ibañez’s Together We Burn centres on a flamenco dancer determined to save her ancestral home and family legacy. When her family’s dragon-fighting arena is sabotaged during its five hundredth anniversary show, eighteen-year-old Zarela Zalvidar realises that someone is trying to bring ruin to her inheritance. With her father horribly injured in the attack and the Dragon Guild threatening to punish the Zalvidars by stripping them of their arena, Zarela is low on both choices and allies.
Enter Arturo Díaz de Montserrat, an infuriating dragon tamer who just happens to be the only one who can help Zarela take her father’s place as the next Dragonador. But first she must convince Arturo to help her – a difficult task when he detests the slaying of dragons for sport and abhors everything about Zarela’s family business. Arturo might be standoffish and stubborn, but he meets his match with Zarela, who refuses to take no for an answer and eventually gets the tamer to reluctantly agree to train her. Yet even with Arturo’s help, someone is determined to destroy Zarela’s family, and she faces a fraught race against time stop them before it’s too late.
Set in an ancient city where monthly dragon fights are an intrinsic part of its history, Together We Burn has everything an unputdownable high fantasy story should have, with the added sparkle of a gutsy heroine and a passionate romance giving it that easy-reading YA feel. The relationship between Zarela and Arturo isn’t quite enemies-to-lovers but the exasperated and argumentative chemistry between them has that kind of deliciously fiery vibe. They bicker like they dislike each other, yet there’s a grudging respect between them that blossoms into something heart-flutteringly lovely (even if it all happens a little too quickly). Despite their romance being a key aspect of the story, Ibañez never allows it to become the only thing that matters; Zarela still has her father and her family legacy to think of, and these things are never far from her heart, or the heart of the story.
Papá lies tucked in bed, fighting for his life. La Giralda barely stands. There’s no one but me to save them both. A fire burns in my chest, fuelled by the love for family and home and legacy. I’ve finally been given a flaming torch and something to burn. I will become a Dragonador.”
Ibañez has created a richly detailed world built on Spanish traditions and her obvious love of the culture that inspired the book sings through every line, page and chapter. Being a story about dragons, there’s a sense of awe and adventure to Zarela’s plight, but whilst the dragons terrorise her city and fill her with a bone-deep fear, it doesn’t ever feel as if they are the main threat. The real danger comes in a very human form, driven by hate and jealousy. It’s not necessarily an evil you can see, which makes it all the more dangerous because it’s not so easy to fight against.
One thing that might have bolstered the story is more flamenco peppered throughout. Given it’s such an essential part of the Zarela’s life, it plays a relatively small part in the book overall. This also isn’t a novel of huge shocks and surprises – but whilst some elements of the story veer towards the side of predictable, the twist towards the end being one of them, other parts of the story help to even it out. The palpable Spanish atmosphere, the passionate heroine with a steely determination, the tetchy tamer with a secret heart of gold, the caring peripheral characters who help Zarela stay true to herself, and the dragons themselves, who are a whimsical blend of the fire-breathing beasts from Game of Thrones, the terrors in Jurassic Park, and the endearing creatures from How To Train Your Dragon. It all combines to create a novel that’s fantastical yet believable, and ultimately very easy to lose yourself in.
If you’re a fan of Isabel Ibañez, you’ll find plenty to enjoy in this interweaving of Hispanic culture, adventure, romance, familial duties and and coming-of-age quandaries. It’s a standalone novel but Zarela and Arturo are both impassioned characters that you want to read more about. An Arturo-centred prequel would be very welcome indeed.
Together We Burn is published by Titan Books on 5 July 2022