Together We Burn follows Zarela Zalvidar, daughter of a famous dragonadore (think bullfighting but with dragons) and a renowned flamenco dancer, set in a fantasy world inspired by medieval Spain. Tragedy strikes Zarela’s family when a dragon fight goes awry resulting in her mother’s death – but the show must go on. Dragon fighting is a dangerous sport after all, and no one in the stands is truly safe. While healing from the loss, Zarela’s family suffers another devastating blow when all their dragons escape during a show resulting in casualties and the injuring of her father. But all is not what it seems, and this accident may be more nefarious – but who would want to do harm to her family? Zarela must step up to clear her family’s name, keep the doors of their arena open before it’s too late. To help her she enlists Arturo Díaz de Montserrat, a reluctant participant in her quest and a once-famous dragon fighter turned dragon hunter with a secretive past.
Zarela is a wonderful character with lots of drive, with the core motivation of protecting her family and ancestral home above all else. She’s lived a somewhat privileged life thus far with lots of luxuries, but when that is all in jeopardy, she is more than willing to step outside of her comfort zone and do what’s needed to further her cause. With this motivation comes wonderfully rich relationships with her father, friend Lola, and caretaker Ofelia. These relationships and conversations are some of the best parts of this book and seeing the inclusion of strong secondary relationships outside of only romance in a YA book are always refreshing. Zarela is a character that is easy to root for, and Ibañez does a phenomenal job of making readers emotionally invested in her quest to clear her family’s name from defamation.
While our heroine Zarela is a fiery passionate character, her love interest Arturo, lacked something to connect readers to him. Ibañez gives Arturo a rich backstory with lots of details, but there was no inclusion of his POV chapters as it is Zarela’s story so he’s not quite as compelling of a character and lacks reader investment Together, Zarela’s and Arturo’s romance would fall under the tropes of “slow burn” and “hate-to-love”, but lacked some banter and tension. Their moment of passion and giving in really fell flat without the proper lead-up and it was much like a flip had been switched from a reader’s perspective for Arturo’s change of heart toward Zarela. Truly, the believability of the romance suffered without insight into his thoughts through POV chapters.
In the real-world, bullfighting has long been a hotly debated topic. The brutality of the sport is too much for some, but others argue for the long-held tradition that contains cultural significance. Ibañez does a fantastic job presenting the dichotomy that exists in the real world through this dragon-fighting fantasy. Readers will feel at the deaths of dragons even though they are only ever presented as animals in this story and never truly humanized. Even though a dragon is never given the “Disney treatment” and made to be a beloved character, you can’t help but feel sympathy for every dragon death in the arena.
Finally, Ibañez’s true strength is in her world-building and descriptions. Every meal is full of rich and wonderful food descriptions that leave readers’ mouths watering and in search of a snack. Every journey Zarela takes transports the reader to Hispalia. She truly is a phenomenal writer of details without being too wordy and creates tangible, fleshed-out fantasy worlds with tons of lore, culture, and atmosphere.