2019’s Fireborne is the first book in Rosaria Munda’s Aurelian Cycle.
First Protector Atreus had a grand vision of what Callipolis could become under his guidance. The serfs would be freed, the masses would be educated, and people would be given positions according to merit, not accident of birth. For that to happen, however, the aristocratic dragonlords had to die, root and branch; mature dragons had to go as well. The dragons could be poisoned, but the massacring the aristocrats was left to mobs angry over famine and systemic abuse.
Repelled by the violence that he himself set in motion, Atreus spares the life of young Leo Stormscourge, sole survivor of his family. The boy is consigned to a state orphanage. Having matters of state to occupy him, Atreus forgets all about Leo.
Almost a decade passes.
Now calling himself Lee, the young aristocrat is very careful to keep his background a secret. Stormscourges are remembered for their unthinking brutality towards their serfs and most particularly for their use of dragons to maintain their oppressive rule. His past, were it known, would subject him to intense suspicion.
But it isn’t. Consequently Lee is able to become one of eight dragon-riding Guardians under consideration for Firstrider, commander of the aerial fleet. So long as his past stays in the past, the only impediment to top rank is his own skill and that of his teammate/rivals. Lee is very, very skilled, and highly motivated as well.
Achievement has a cost. All the candidates attract a lot of attention, which is dangerous to someone whose history needs to remain sub rosa. Lee is recognized as Leo … but not by agents of the state.
Not all of the old dragonrider aristocracy died in the Revolution. Some escaped to New Pythos, taking with them dragon eggs. Like the Guardians’ dragons, New Pythos’ dragons are on the verge of the age when they can breathe fire. In a world with technology more 6th century BCE than modern, dragons are an unparalleled weapon of mass destruction. Unopposed, New Pythos’ dragons could force Callipolis to choose between restoration of aristocratic rule or annihilation. With the Guardians to defend Callipolis, the outcome is far from certain.
Lee presents an opportunity. If he could be persuaded to become a covert New Pythosian agent; he could work from within to cripple Callipolis’ ability to resist. He might even kill the First Protector. Why wouldn’t Lee side with his last relatives?
There is a catch: Lee’s best friend and fellow Guardian Annie is a former serf. Like Lee, she is an orphan. Her family was burned alive by Lee’s father’s dragon, as an object lesson to other serfs who were being obstreperous in a time of famine. Despite Lee’s considerable reluctance to admit familial guilt, he has come to understand that his family were terrible, terrible rulers whose fall was due in large part to their combination of ineptitude, cruelty, and willful blindness.
Therefore, Lee must choose between kindred and duty.
Promotional material for this book claims that it was inspired by Plato’s Republic. The book reminded me of an essay by Orwell about weapons: democratic or non-democratic. A case of grenades, for example, is cheap enough that the neighborhood cadres can afford a few cases, whereas H‑bombs are a lot pricier; their destructive potential belongs only to the rich and powerful. Dragons turn out to be the second sort of weapon, which put the revolutionaries in the awkward position of deciding whether to embrace armed forces that are inherently un-democratic or to disarm, knowing that the surviving dragonlords would not.
The Revolution was not perfect, what with the horrific massacres and all. The state that it founded is also far from perfect. For one thing, it has fallen into classism again. The testing system used to sort students into various occupations – unskilled Iron, skilled Bronze, military Silvers, and scholarly Gold – seems to send most of the former serfs into Iron and Bronze, whereas patricians tend to be revealed as either Silver or Gold. As well, the Protector’s focus on developing the economy has meant focusing on export goods rather than food self-sufficiency, which leaves the island nation vulnerable to trade warfare and engineered famines. This in turn forces the new state to have to choose who gets to eat. Guess which classes bear the brunt of famine1?
Nevertheless, Leo’s ancestors managed the difficult trick of being measurably worse than the new democracy. Like the Romanovs, Stuarts, Bourbons, Qing, and others, the final generations’ firm belief in their right to rule was not backed with any particular talent for the task (although Leo’s kin did have a nasty talent for counter-productively terrorising their subjects). Lee’s position would be much easier if he were choosing between good and bad, but he ends up having to decide which of two bad choices is less bad. It would be so easy to choose the slightly worse but personally more advantageous path. Alas for Lee, friendship with Annie has taught him things that persons of his class would never have learned in the bad old days.
In sum, this novel is far from black and white (unlike most YA). It doesn’t pretend offer any happy compromise that will reconcile both sides (and that will spare characters the need to take a stand). It’s well enough written that it would be worth hunting down.
1: There is also the matter of the Protector’s energetic use of censors and propaganda. Still, I can’t imagine freedom of the press worked better when the island was run by reactionary aristocrats and populated by legions of illiterates.