Maya C. James Reviews The Ones We Burn by Rebecca Mix

The Ones We Burn, Rebecca Mix (Marga­ret K. McElderry Books 978-1-5344-9351-3, $21.99, 480pp, hc) November 2022. Cover by Eliot Baum.

The Ones We Burn is a witchy, queer YA fan­tasy novel about a blood-witch named Ranka. Her frightening and rare powers make her the perfect weapon against the humans who wish to destroy witches. When she is named the treaty bride to human prince Galen, her coven gives her one directive: marry him, and then kill him. However her tale does not begin among the halls of the prince’s kingdom, but among the frozen pines of the wild north, investigating the disap­pearance of several witches and hunting to fulfill her need for blood. Mix’s prose and atmospheric writing are strongest here – the vivid images of Ranka hunting predatory animals through the wilderness of Witchik gives us an exciting glimpse into all that her character is capable of, and how her life has always been tied to violence. Character-wise, Ranka is also a total jock – she doesn’t think things through as well as she should, but is immensely talented physi­cally and has a big heart for her coven. Standing at an intimidating six-plus feet tall, she’s quite a foil to the shorter, and sharper Aramis, who has virtually no physical talents. Prince Galen is a gentle, kind boy who is averse to violence. His kindness extends even to Ranka, despite the fact that he is terrified of her. I found the relationship between the prince and Ranka more interesting than the romantic one between her and Aramis. Where Galen is kind and thoughtful, Ranka is blunt and passionate. Their scenes were among my favorites in the novel. While the enemies-to-lovers trope can be done well, and I appreciated Mix’s subversion of the trope, I didn’t love the idea of Ranka and Aramis’s relationship begin­ning from a place where Ranka needed to be tamed by an oppressing power. Considering the premise of the conflict is political in nature, I was also surprised by how little political maneuvering and intrigue existed on the page, or how little Ranka considered her emotions towards Aramis within the context of her mission. Certain circumstances required Ranka’s acquiescing to Aramis’s demands, but lacked a bit of authenticity to her character as I had come to understand it.

With more YA and middle grade novels focusing on witchcraft and LGBTQ+ represen­tation, I appreciated the book’s contribution to this growing collection. Witches come in all genders, and are not just limited to cisgender women. What feels more relevant to the novel is how Ranka finds meaning in her relation­ships and outside of her purpose as a weapon. Combined with a life-altering ability, childhood abuse, love, healing and politics, the elements of the novel were not entirely cohesive, even if admirable and interesting to read.

There’s a lot going on in The Ones We Burn – a disease linked to missing witches, treaty marriages, an impending coup, and an enemies-to-lover plot with the prince’s sister. I think Mix was aware of just how much was in the novel, and split it into four sections to help readers keep track of what’s occurring. Mix also offsets some of these themes with a nice blend humor and seriousness – she knew when to take her difficult themes very seriously and when to ease up on passages of despair, violence, and trauma. It was necessary and well done, espe­cially considering the novel skews towards the younger half of the YA genre.

Mix’s decision to introduce some important elements late in the novel does impact the co­hesiveness of her story. For example, I was not aware of just how many covens existed, and the various powers each one specialized in until the end. This seemed especially important to fully understand how the magic of the world sooner rather than later, considering the novel is primar­ily about witches and their magic.

It feels important to note that the completion of the book was a miraculous feat on its own – three years into writing the novel, Rebecca Mix suf­fered an intense brain injury that left her unable to read, write, or work for quite some time. With her commitment to her work in mind, The Ones We Burn is a solid, passionate debut, and Mix has an exciting trajectory of success ahead of her.

Maya C. James is a graduate of the Lannan Fellows Program at Georgetown University, and full-time student at Harvard Divinity School. Her work has appeared in Star*Line, Strange Horizons, FIYAH, Soar: For Harriet, and Georgetown University’s Berkley Center Blog, among others. She was recently long listed for the Stockholm Writers Festival First Pages Prize (2019), and featured on a feminist speculative poetry panel at the 2019 CD Wright Women Writer’s Conference. Her work focuses primarily on Afrofuturism, and imagining sustainable futures for at-risk communities. You can find more of her work here, and follow her on Twitter: @mayawritesgood.

This review and more like it in the January 2023 issue of Locus.

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