Elisa A. Bonnin makes a powerful debut with Dauntless, a lush and emotive Filipino-inspired fantasy centered on three very different girls reimagining the entirety of their world. This is a book about reckoning with the humanity in our mentors, our heroes, our lovers, and ourselves, especially in times of great trauma and impossible choices. Bonnin weaves cinematic action with emotive sapphic romance and thoughtful friendships to craft a propulsive fantasy.
Seri thought she understood the line between good and evil. The boundaries of the People’s known world are protected from vicious beasts by the valiant, powerful fighters who make their protective armor out of the very beasts they kill. The People make their homes in vast spreading trees. There are beasts, and there are the People. There is nothing else. Until, that is, Seri has a devastating encounter with a beast that leaves her racked with guilt and grief. She finds her way to the side of Eshai Unbroken, a renowned commander not too much older than Seri herself. Under Eshai’s stalwart guidance, Seri finds something close to belonging, a way to atone for her past. But everything changes when Seri meets Tsana, a girl who shouldn’t exist. A girl from beyond the boundaries of the known world, from a people unlike Seri’s People, with a very different understanding of beasts, humanity, and what it means to fight for peace. A girl who might be the key to unlock parts of Seri’s heart she didn’t know she had. As tensions between their respective forces heighten to a deadly clash, Seri finds herself caught between the world as she knows it and the terrifying, thrilling potential Tsana has to offer.
Bonnin’s worldbuilding is fascinating and refreshingly inventive. This is a visual, action-packed novel that roots deep in the emotions of its three very different POV girls, and it’s balanced extremely effectively. It started a bit slow for me but picks up soon and successfully, building to an accessible but propulsive pace. I trusted in the deeply compelling premise and the magnetic writing, and it thoroughly pays off. These are complex characters with varying strengths, and I loved following each of them through the intersections of their narratives.
Dauntless calls authority into question, interrogating those who want power and why. It explores how legacy is constructed through story, how a crucial schism between cultures effects lives and livelihood for generations. As a biracial Fil-Am reader, I was struck by the resonance of the regionalism in our Filipino history and present that shines through Bonnin’s cleverly woven fantasy. She imagines a world that’s still mostly unknown, envisioning a clash of two disparate cultures trying to intersect in a way that doesn’t end in bloodshed or colonialism. The unimaginable weight of change, the hope and the beauty of it. Dauntless feels almost mythic, both in its imaginative worldbuilding and the texture of the story itself. Each girl confronts what it means to rethink the rules of her entire world. And in this way Bonnin explores what bravery can look like in a fantasy setting: not only the courage it takes to confront unimaginable threats, but also the courage it takes to confront your own shifting values, to learn and grow and question what you thought was sure. She interrogates monstrosity, civility, the faith we put in our leaders and our very construction of morality. At the same time, she emphasizes the fallibility of every character, the need to have compassion for ourselves even and perhaps especially as we fight for a different world than the one we thought we had to accept.
Not to spoil any major twists, but as a biracial Fil-Am reader I also deeply adored the self-discovery Seri experiences at the core of the book. I’ve read other stories that explore simultaneity in identity, the potential power inherent in it, but few that feel quite so true to the complexities and interplay that it can entail. I’m so intrigued by Seri’s parents that I almost wish there had been more of them, but Bonnin’s choices feel so satisfying in the context of the narrative, it all fits extremely well.
And at its core this is also a desperately romantic love story. Two, really, and Eshai’s pairing is given equal care and thoughtfulness, I just can’t help but personally swoon a bit harder for Seri and Tsana. Tsana reads as bisexual or queer while Seri is a lesbian, and there’s such a vindication to two Filipino-inspired girls defying the odds of their world to find something of a home in each other. Against a backdrop of impactful conflict, tenderness blossoms between them, bright and powerful.
Bonnin leavens the plot with romance and friendship, and it worked very well for me. I’m grateful Dauntless didn’t dwell too much on political intricacies—there was enough for me to understand the stakes, and I really liked seeing the complex conflicts from the perspective of girls who have to live within the consequences of the decision-makers. It felt real, and rooted. This is a beautiful, impactful debut fantasy that succeeds on so many levels of craft and care. I eagerly look forward to Bonnin’s forthcoming work.
Dauntless is published by Swoon Reads.
Maya Gittelman is a queer Fil-Am and Jewish writer and poet. They have a short story forthcoming in the YA anthology Night of the Living Queers (Wednesday Books, 2023). She works in independent publishing, and is currently at work on a novel. Find them on Twitter (@mayagittelman) or Instagram (@bookshelfbymaya).