>> Thursday, November 05, 2015
TITLE: Nice Dragons Finish Last
AUTHOR: Rachel Aaron
SETTING: Futuristic, alternate-universe
TYPE: Urban fantasy
SERIES: #1 in the Heartstrikers series
As the smallest dragon in the Heartstriker clan, Julius survives by a simple code: keep quiet, don’t cause trouble, and stay out of the way of bigger dragons. But this meek behavior doesn't fly in a family of ambitious magical predators, and his mother, Bethesda the Heartstriker, has finally reached the end of her patience.
Now, sealed in human form and banished to the DFZ--a vertical metropolis built on the ruins of Old Detroit--Julius has one month to prove he can be a ruthless dragon or kiss his true shape goodbye forever. But in a city of modern mages and vengeful spirits where dragons are considered monsters to be exterminated, he’s going to need some serious help to survive this test.
He only hopes humans are more trustworthy than dragons...
I first came to Rachel Aaron's writing with her Paradox trilogy, written as Rachel Bach. That was sci-fi with a strong dollop of romance. I loved it, so I took the plunge with this book, which is urban fantasy. That's a subgenre I've tried again and again and it's usually not my thing, but there are always exceptions.
The story is set in sort of post-apocalyptic world, where a disaster woke up long-sleeping magical forces and created all sorts of ructions. Our hero, Julius, is a dragon shifter who's part of one of the biggest clans, the Heartstrikers. Dragons are wild, violent creatures, feared by all humans and most other magical beings, and they take pride in this.
The problem is that Julius' natural inclination is to be nice. He'd rather deal with others reasonably and reach a mutually beneficial conclusion than threaten and demand on pain of his counterpart being eaten. His mother and leader of the clan, Bethesda, is not happy about this. She's tried all sorts of tactics to harden up Julius (some of which almost killed him), but nothing's worked. So she makes a final attempt: she bounds Julius to his human form, preventing him from shifting into a dragon, and sends him to the Detroit Free Zone. This is a particularly dangerous area for dragons, as they are forbidden and this rule is enforced by one of the few beings much more powerful than dragons. While there, he must accomplish a mission set by one of his brothers, and if he can't, he's done for.
With the help of Marci Novalli, a mage Julius meets and forms an alliance with on his first night in the DFZ, Julius must find a way to prove himself to his family without betraying his nature.
I'm glad to report this was one of the happy exceptions where I actually liked an UF title. I mean, the UF aspects of it weren't that successful. All the dragon politics and plotting here were my least favourite part of the book, mainly because it was all complicated and twisted to the point that it was preposterous and the motivations didn't make sense.
The thing is, I loved the characters. I loved Julius' kindness and intelligence and his cleverness in coming at problems sideways. I loved they way he started out lacking in confidence (and who could blame him?), but still made a decision to stop trying to be a good dragon in the traditional definition and start operating the way his moral code told him was right. And I loved his increasing realisation (which is no spoiler, the reader can see this coming a mile off) that acting that way is much more effective than the usual draconic action... making his way the real draconic way! It was all heart-warming in the best of ways, particularly the sections with Marci, when he realises how wonderful it is to be appreciated for what he actually is.
Marci is possibly a bit less developed and has less of a journey than Julius, but she's still a character in her own right, rather than simply a potential romantic interest. And I l iked that she brings quite a lot to the table in terms of power.
I also liked the world Aaron has created. There's lots of potential there, and I will happily read more books in this setting. Oh, and the humour. I may not have quite conveyed it in my review above, but for all the potentially disastrous consequences and the constant threats to kill Julius, there's quite a lot of humour there. The juxtaposition is hard to pull off, but I think Aaron does it.
MY GRADE: A B+.