If you’ve ever been let down by a story that promised plentiful dragons and didn’t deliver (I’m looking at you, Reign of Fire), please know that Fire with Fire, Destiny Soria’s thoroughly enjoyable third YA novel, doesn’t stint on dragon action. Most of that action comes from one young dragon, Nox, who didn’t intend to soul-bond with 17-year-old Dani Rivera. Neither of them had a choice in the matter: there’s no refusing a soul bond, which happens when a dragon and human are born at the same moment.
This bond, though, is especially inconvenient, as Dani comes from a long line of dragon slayers.
Fire with Fire is the book equivalent of the best kind of action movie—the kind that gets in all the elaborate stunt sequences and fraught adventures, but also allows for enjoyable characters, nuanced relationships, and perhaps even a bit of intergenerational cooperation. But far too few action movies focus on sisters like Dani and Eden Rivera.
Eden, two years older than Dani, is focused and determined, a dedicated slayer who puts in long hours trying to be the absolute best at what she does. For Dani, the family business plays second fiddle to normal teenage cares, though she does try to live up to Eden’s expectations. From Eden’s frustrated perspective, slaying seems to come effortlessly to Dani—if she’d just take it all more seriously.
The Rivera parents are offscreen for much of Fire with Fire, but they’re smart and they trust their children, and it’s immediately refreshing to have slaying be a family business, not something one generation has to hide from another. The sisters’ Scottish dad, James, married into the Mexican-American Rivera family, and took on not only his wife Analisa’s last name (it’s tradition) but her dedication to the family’s line of work as well. Not everyone picks up an axe, though, and Dani and Eden’s quirky aunt Frankie is a nice counterbalance to all the training and danger (she calls on the girls’ impressive physical capabilities when she needs a cat rescued from a tree).
When you read the word “slayer” more than a few times, it’s hard to keep from thinking of a different kind of slayer: Buffy. And there are parallels, not least in the long-lived sorcerers who retain their youthful appearances and tend toward the heartless and cruel. But much of Soria’s story is in direct rebuke to the lonesome, there-can-be-only-one, magical-patriarchy-backstory of Buffy Summers’ existence—which isn’t a surprise, given the close-knit bonds among characters in all her books (her 2016 debut, Iron Cast, has one of my all-time favorite YA friendships). The Rivera girls train with their family, and there’s an extended dragon-slaying network that makes another family of sorts. They already know what it takes Buffy years to learn: You can’t save the world alone.
Nox’s arrival in Dani’s life upsets a lot of things, but isn’t the only supernatural inciting incident. While Dani comes to terms with her new understanding of dragons, Eden runs into a different kind of predator: a powerful white woman who wishes to reshape the world in her own image, using a lot of stolen power. The sorcerer Calla Thorn has a captive dragon, a fortress hidden in the middle of Tennessee, and a secret about how sorcerers are made. Sorcerers and slayers have worked in uneasy tandem for decades, but Calla really works only for herself—as Eden, drawn to the power a sorcerer can wield, finds out firsthand. With Calla tempting one sister and Nox demanding the help of the other, conflict is more than inevitable. It’s immediate.
Anxious, envious, insecure Eden is Soria’s most compelling character. She’s not as immediately appealing as impulsive, outgoing Dani; she’s a rule-follower and a people-pleaser and she struggles to accept her own value. She has anxiety, and Soria’s portrayal of Eden’s efforts to balance her racing mind with her slayer responsibilities is compassionate and considered. Eden has a lot to learn, including that she doesn’t need to be “fixed,” and it takes her a while to get there. She’s jealous, she’s prickly, she wants a sense of power and control that eludes her—and she’s trying to manage everything by herself.
Dani, with her determination to have a normal life, has something Eden doesn’t: friends. She’s introduced not in the company of her family, but with her best friend Tomás, whose loving family treats Dani like she’s one of them. When her ex-friend and youthful love interest Sadie arrives back in town, the girl’s presence further complicates Dani’s world and feelings. Their tentative steps toward friendship are far more interesting than Dani’s rushed connection with a hot and troubled centuries-old sorcerer, Kieran—but Soria handles his tangled loyalties nicely. And then, of course, there’s Nox, whose sarcasm and skepticism of humans gives him a certain catlike personality. He has all the knowledge of his forebears, but he doesn’t know “Kumbaya.” Yet.
Fire with Fire has a lightness that keeps it buoyant and energetic, even when things get dark and bloody. The action is occasionally slowed by Soria’s inclination to detail each move a fighter makes, but these are dragon slayers; they express their personalities in their fighting. And some of the best action sequences involve Nox, who could probably rival his dragon cousin Toothless for charm if this book is ever adapted into a film.
Soria never loses sight of her modern-day setting; the existence of dragons and sorcerers doesn’t stop her characters from having more down-to-earth, real-life concerns about identity and acceptance and mental health. She also walks a neat line between fantasy and technology: both can save the day, and both can get a girl in trouble. (The existence of a subreddit full of “dragon truthers” is also just perfect.) Though it takes a minute to get going, once Fire with Fire builds momentum, it’s hard to put down. The coming war between factions who disagree about dragons is all well and good and dramatic, but it’s the divide between Dani and Eden, and their struggle to understand each other, that makes this book tick.