Young adult fantasy often uses outlandish settings and magical characters to explore all too relatable and human questions of identity and belonging. Rebecca Mix’s The Ones We Burn is, on paper, a political fantasy about the uneasy tension between two kingdoms comprised of people who are very different from one another. (Though it ultimately evolves into something much more emotionally complex.) The magical denizens of Witchik and the largely mortal humans of Isodal once had a fruitful connection between their lands but have since grown distrustful and fearful of one another—despite the fact that the equally magical Skybreaker kings have sat on the throne of Isodal for years.
The novel follows the story of Ranka, a young blood witch who is chosen to serve as a political bride to keep the peace between the witch clans and the human world. But when she arrives in the capital city of Seaswept—armed with a plot to find a missing witch and assassinate the man she’s meant to marry—Ranka learns that nothing is what she expected. As she begins to question whether she has a chance at a future that doesn’t involve being an unstoppable killing machine for those who claim her loyalty, she’s also forced to confront her own past—which may have much darker elements than she’s been willing to really let herself remember.
As a character, Ranka’s arc has familiar elements from many other YA fantasies. A lost girl with a deadly magical gift she didn’t ask for and can’t entirely control, she has many sisters within this genre space. But Mix still manages to find something new to explore by honing in on the horrific trauma at the heart of her story in ways that many books like this one often choose to ignore. Because while Ranka may be a uniquely powerful chosen one with a rare gift, she’s also a young girl struggling to process an unimaginable amount of emotional damage, rooted in the abuse she’s suffered at the hands of those who were meant to love her best.
We got the chance to chat with Mix herself about the complex themes of The Ones We Burn, Ranka’s journey toward healing, her relationship with Aramis, and the worldbuilding we didn’t get to see.
Paste Magazine: Tell me a little about where the idea for The Ones We Burn came from.
Rebecca Mix: I love reluctant anti-heroes, and I love flipping tropes around. “Girl is sent to kill the prince she’s (probably) betrothed to” is such a classic YA trope, and I just thought the idea of a girl being confident she won’t fall for the prince and then immediately mucking everything up by falling for his sister would be a blast to write. There are also a lot of my own experiences woven through this story—but those came later. So much of this book is really just a love letter to all the YA fantasy that made me a reader.
Paste: How would you describe this story? Do you consider it a political fantasy? A coming-of-age story? Something else entirely?
Mix: For me, The Ones We Burn is ultimately a story about what it means to be a child of abuse undergoing the very painful, confusing process of questioning your experiences, reckoning with what happened to you, and trying to figure out how the hell you move on, heal, and break the cycle—with some witches, magic, and madness thrown in. It’s also a story about chronic illness, and what it means to suffer a total betrayal of a body.
The political angle came later—I love political fantasy stories, and I’m fascinated by what power reveals about us, but the heart of this story has always been that terrifying experience of being a very hurt child transitioning to adulthood, and realizing the ones charged with protecting you may have actually been the ones doing the most harm.
Paste: Ranka is such an unexpected heroine for a book like this—she’s basically just this feral girl who wants to go live by herself in the woods. (Which, honestly? Relatable.) How did her journey come together for you?
Mix: Other than the fact I’m also a feral girl who just wants to go live by herself in the woods? Ha.
I’ve always adored stories about reluctant heroes who are dragged kicking and screaming into the plot. A new layer was added in 2019 when I sustained a pretty bad brain injury after striking my head on concrete. I lost my ability to read, to write, or even talk on the phone, and I’m still not completely better. It was very traumatic to go from someone healthy and able-bodied to someone essentially unable to function overnight. I began writing my journey with my brain injury into the book because I didn’t know how else to process it—and it’s no accident that a major part of Ranka’s arc with her magic involves daily injections of medication modeled off of the growth hormone I inject myself every morning.
Ranka’s arc is very much a “the only way out, is through” kind of vibe. The meld of physical, emotional, and mental trauma made the perfect storm for a girl to have the absolute worst kind of Main Character experience possible. ( Also, I just thought it’d be funny to take a really physically strong character who isn’t that sharp and shove her into a court setting where none of her physical prowess matters. Sorry, Ranka.)
Paste: I would love to hear more about the world-building in The Ones We Burn—-the one thing I wish we’d had more time for was more background about Isodal and Witchik and the complex histories of both. How did you think about the unspoken connections between these groups?
Mix: You and me both! The world-building was a fun kind of headache, because this book is so painfully, squarely in Ranka’s POV-so even while I have a very rich understanding of the histories between Isodal and Witchik, she…doesn’t. Ranka has spent the bulk of her life in extreme seclusion, being fed only bits and pieces about the outside world.
I found I had to world-build twice: first, for me, from a kind of eagle-eye view of the different factions, histories, and figures driving the many conflicts, and then a second time from Ranka’s [perspective]. What would she know? What wouldn’t she? There’s so much I know that she wouldn’t, or couldn’t, and she’s such an unreliable narrator that nine times out of ten what she “knows” isn’t even correct because she’s been lied to
Paste:. I think one of the things that really sets this story apart is how forthright it is about trauma and the way that abuse can make you feel both unworthy of love and desperate to find anything that looks similar to it in your own life. Why was it important for you to dig into this part of Ranka’s story?
Mix: This is such a thoughtful question, and I appreciate you asking it.
I think this is the book I’d desperately wish I’d had as a teenager I’ve spoken with a lot of people who can speak to a “lightbulb moment” they got from some kind of media depicting an abusive parent as a kid— a moment that made them go, “Wait, maybe this isn’t normal.” Sometimes that moment makes them seek help; sometimes it stirs that tiny, quiet voice in their head that will get louder over the years until they hit a breaking point. So that’s what this book is, I guess—me reaching back, flicking on that lightbulb, and hoping it finds someone who needs it.
Paste: Besides Ranka, whose story did you like writing the best in this book?
Mix: While Percy was the most fun to write, the answer is actually Galen, the crown prince Ranka is sent to kill because she (falsely) believes he’s her enemy. I’ve always had an immense soft spot for him.
Galen is this kind, gentle boy trapped in a brutal, terrifying, messy world—and as someone who is sometimes a little too tender-hearted, and a little too soft, stuck in our own brutal, terrifying world, it was really rewarding to write a story about a character who is almost defiantly good. I believe kindness to be its own quiet of bravery, particularly when it’s clung to in the face of cruelty and horror. When we meet Ranka, she’s this mess of muscle and scars and fury, and then she meets Galen—this boy with a kingdom on his shoulders and a world burning at his feet, who has been given every opportunity to be terrible; but he clings to his tender heart, and his trust, and his softness, and I’d argue he’s one of the strongest characters in the book because of it. I think I’m always looking for that — good people, who are almost fierce in their kindness in spite of the world around them. People like that give me hope. And I’m always searching for hope.
Paste: Talk to me a little about Ranka and Aramis’s relationship and why you think these clearly broken girls are drawn to each other.
Mix: Ranka and Aramis are such a joy to write because they’re very intentional foils of each other: the beautiful, brilliant princess with very little physical prowess, and the scarred warrior-girl who is very physically strong but isn’t the brightest, and is painfully aware of it. They’re immediately confounded by each other.
Ranka isn’t impressed by Aramis’ status and has no interest in using her as a political tool; Aramis isn’t cowed by Ranka and actually calls her on her shit. Both of them have inherited a political nightmare and are being constantly manipulated by adults. Both had their childhoods robbed from them, albeit in different ways. Both have someone they are desperate to protect at all costs. So in the beginning, though they’re political enemies, they’re also both so desperately lonely, and they see the best of themselves in the other girl. When you’ve been raised to believe pain is love, your first experience with healthy relationships can feel like a dangerous, unguaranteed thing—but it’s also world-altering. It’s the first time they’ve been really seen by someone; and it’s the first time they’ve been really, truly listened to. When we meet Aramis and Ranka, they’re these broken, lonely girls, and even though they’re enemies, they find in each other someone who respects them, and in each other, they see a chance at a better, kinder world—and they just can’t help but fall.
Paste: Do you think you would ever want to write more stories in this universe? (Not necessarily a sequel because I do think this story ends in a really natural place but maybe something connected to it?)
Mix I don’t have anything planned at the moment. I’m very pleased with how the story ended, and even in my own private headcanons, Ranka’s story is done. I put that poor girl through enough. But it is fun to daydream about the Star Isles!
Paste: What’s next for you as an author? Any upcoming projects you can share with us?
Mix: Yes! I’ve got a middlegrade duology starting next year with HarperCollins I’m incredibly excited about. The first book is called The Mossheart’s Promise, and it follows twelve-year-old Ary Mossheart, the unremarkable, anxious granddaughter of her world’s last great hero. When Ary wakes one morning to find her mother filled with the very mold eating her world alive, she sets out in search of a cure, only to learn that her entire world is trapped inside of a giant, rotting terrarium they were meant to leave a hundred years ago.
Worse, her Gran knew, and never told anyone. Now Ary has five days to find the exit, or they’re trapped forever. It’s a love letter to the middlegrade that turned me into a reader—City of Ember, Gregor the Overlander, Redwall,, etc—and filled with all my favorite things. There’s also a giant talking newt, climate change Feelings, and a whole lot of mold.
Paste: My always my very favorite question: What are you reading right now?
Mix: So I’m one of those people who reads multiple books at once (I know, I know.) I just finished Crying In H-Mart and loved it. Right now, for fantasy, I’m bopping between reading Ayana Gray’s fantastic Beasts of Ruina href="https://www.pastemagazine.com/books/joan-he/strike-the-zither-review/">Strike the Zither; I’m also reading Atul Gawande’s Being Moratal and Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain.
The Ones We Burn is available now wherever books are sold.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.