Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Book Review: So Let Them Burn by Kamilah Cole

A YA, Jamaican-inspired, dragon-filled fantasy dealing with friendship, family, and cultural clashes. 

The premise of Kamilah Cole’s YA fantasy So Let Them Burn had my attention as soon as I read the description: Jamaican-inspired; dragons; sisters. As a Jamaican-born, old school nerd who devoured Anne McCaffery as a teen, this story seemed tailor made for me. But I have been disappointed by seemingly perfect stories before. Fortunately, So Let Them Burn is an enjoyable page-turner filled with likeable characters and engaging Jamaican references.

The island nation of San Irie had been struggling under the suffocating and violent colonialist rule of the oppressive Langlish Empire. So Let Them Burn opens five years after San Irie’s defeat of the Langlish. The island is now free but still reeling from the devastation of war and wary of the nearby Langlish Empire which still seeks to re-conquer them. The Langlish forces are made up of fearsome dragons and their psychically bonded human dragon riders. The people of San Irie (Iryans) have powerful weapons of their own. They can summon the spirits of their ancestors to help them fight and their military forces use drakes—semi-sentient airships which can defeat dragons. But the biggest weapon is the protagonist Faron, the Childe Empyrean, a teenaged girl who has been granted the power to summon the three Iryan gods: Irie, Mala, and Obie. The novel focuses on Faron, the rebellious, sharp-tongued, reluctant hero who would prefer to footrace and play rather than walk around in her Empyrean robes.

There is a lot of backstory in the set up for the novel but it’s neatly woven into the adventure so it doesn’t slow the rapid pace of the book. During the great war, the Langlish forces killed and maimed thousands while trying to destroy the temples and cities in a quest for something mysterious. Ironically, their defeat was partly brought about by the military commander’s son, Reeve, who became a traitor to aid the Iryan fighters. By stealing his father’s military secrets, he gave the Iryans the boost they need to fully defeat the Langlish. But Reeve’s betrayal comes at a high price for him. He must now live in exile, hated by the people he helped save (because he represents the murderous race who attacked the island) and despised by his home country who views him as a traitor. His only allies are Faron’s strong but kind sister Elara; Aveline, the young queen of the island; and a few of the locals who take him into their household as a foster child.  

All of this happens before the book begins. At times, it feels like we are joining the adventure midway because of the complicated but fascinating set up. The history is so interesting that I wish we had some of that backstory on the page, even if just in a prologue. The passing references to Faron becoming the nation’s savior at age twelve or Reeve betraying his parents to help the Iryans, are worth more than a footnote. When the novel begins, those twelve year-old heroes are now seventeen, looking back on their past choices with more tiredness than pride.

The main plot of the book starts with the Iryan queen’s peace summit on San Irie attended by various nations including the enemy Langlish. In violation of the intent of the summit, the Langlish bring dragons, who are parked on a nearby isle. When one of the dragons gets loose, Faron’s sister Elara unexpectedly bonds with it and with the dragon’s lead rider, Signey. Faron is able to draw on an unknown astral power to control the chaos. However, the dragon’s psychic bonding with Elara is irreversible, so the Langlish commander proposes that Elara move to Langley to learn dragon riding. No Iryan has ever bonded with a dragon and the turn of events means Elara must leave her home country and live with the enemy. Knowing the situation is probably a scheme by the Langlish, the young queen Aveline decides to use Elara as a spy, which Elara readily accepts. However, Faron is furious about her sister’s departure and reluctantly decides to work with Reeve (who she dislikes) to find a way to free Elara from the bond. While Reeve wears himself out in research, Faron secretly connects with a sinister force to get what she needs. Meanwhile Elara gradually builds a friendship with her dragon, her fellow riders, and particularly her co-rider Signey to whom she grows attracted.

So Let Them Burn delves unexpectedly into toxic love.  Reeve’s cruel parents go to terrible extremes to save the son who ultimately turns against them. Faron’s love for her sister is unrelentingly intense. Both Elara and Reeve are victims of oppressive acts of love that have been forced on them with devastating results.

The ensuing adventure is a page-turner that’s hard to put down, especially with the appealing references to elements of Jamaican culture including patois, dancehall music, and food like breadfruit, saltfish, and guinep. However, I miss the days when a YA fantasy novel would tell a complete story and leave just enough room for a sequel. So Let Them Burn is the opening act of a larger story. But the addictive pace, likeable characters, and appealing references to nuances of Jamaican culture ultimately make this journey worthwhile.


The Math

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10


  • Jamaican-inspired references
  • Toxic family relationships
  • Page turning, dragon-riding fun

Reference: Kamilah Cole, So Let Them Burn [Little Brown Book Group, 2024]

POSTED BY: Ann Michelle Harris – Multitasking, fiction writing Trekkie currently dreaming of her next beach vacation.