November can be a nasty month so as a countermeasure I’m recommending a warm-hearted story about a very nice dragon. Rachel Aaron’s “Nice Dragons Finish Last” is the first book in her “Heartstriker” series. It came out in 2014 and is available in paperback or as an ebook. This novel is set in the late 21st century, 60 years after magic has surged back into the world reawakening the spirits of the land and empowering human mages. I’d classify “Nice Dragons Finish Last” as Urban Fantasy. Most of the action takes place in a bizarre version of Detroit, a city which deserves a break but doesn’t get much of one in this plot. Oh and as a hangover from “Ghost Month” this novel features a ghostly cat who may or may not be a Death Spirit.
Twenty-four year-old Julius is a junior member of the powerful dragon-clan known as the Heartstrikers. He is a kindly soul who lacks the ambition and aggression of most of dragonkind. This is a problem when you are a grandson of the mighty feathered dragon, Quetzalcoatl, and a son of the ruthless Bethesda. She murdered her own father to take over the Heartstriker clan and has hatched more clutches of eggs than any other female dragon. Bethesda doesn’t tolerate failure in her children. She suddenly seals Julius into his human form, depriving him of most of his powers, and throws him out of his Nevada home. Julius is dumped in the notoriously dangerous DFZ (Detroit Free Zone) and warned that Bethesda will eat him if he doesn’t do something truly draconic by the end of the month.
His only chance seems to be a job offered by his devious elder brother, Ian. All Julius has to do is track down a runaway dragoness in a city where humans have few legal rights and full-form dragons are killed on sight. Julius does have two allies among his numerous siblings: his much stronger clutch-brother Justin, and his oldest brother, the Great Seer Brohomir, known as Bob. The trouble is that Justin is none too bright and Bob is generally thought to be mad. Bob can see possible futures but his only advice to Julius is to behave like a gentleman and help desperate women. Julius soon meets one – a young human mage called Marci Novalli who is desperate for a paying job. Julius hires her to help him infiltrate a group of shamans and find Katya, the missing dragoness.
Marci is a mage powerful enough to bind a Death Spirit but she’s on the run from the man who killed her father. Murderous thugs and mages are after her and they keep on coming because of a prophecy. Julius soon has to cope with a malicious Seer from another dragon-clan, gun-wielding gangsters, sewer and cave-dwelling monsters, and his scary sister Chelsie whose job is to punish any Heartstriker who steps out of line. Justin’s efforts to help only attract the unwelcome attention of both Chelsie and Algonquin, the terrifying Spirit of the Great Lakes who rules the DFZ. Julius is reluctant to complete his mission and force Katya to go back to her clan. He’s sick of being told to be a good dragon if that “is just another name for a cold-blooded sociopath.” Can Julius find a way to come out on top but still stay nice?
Regular readers of Fantasy Reads will know that I am keen on dragons. I loved this novel even though most of the dragon-characters stay in their drop-dead gorgeous human forms throughout the story. This book is more about draconic states of mind than fire-breathing monsters. The sudden return of magic to earth after a “thousand-year drought” and the history of the two dragon groups we get to meet – the black-haired, green-eyed Heartstrikers and the snow-pale, all female Three Sisters clan – are rather sketchily described in “Nice Dragons Finish Last”. Fortunately, the details are filled in – complete with some fascinating surprises – in the two sequels: “One Good Dragon Deserves Another” (2015) and “No Good Dragon Goes Unpunished” (2016).
What you do get in this very American take on Urban Fantasy is a wonderfully atmospheric portrait of a city that has risen again after a great catastrophe. I’ve a soft spot for Detroit (a favourite aunt of mine used to live there) and the decay of huge areas of this once prosperous city seems to have captured the imagination of artists and writers. In Jim Jarmusch’s intriguing Fantasy film “Only Lovers Left Alive” (2013), cool vampire Adam hangs out in a decayed Victorian mansion in Detroit. Marci squats in a similar, rubbish-filled, cat-infested house in “Nice Dragons Finish Last”. In Aaron’s version of American history, most of Detroit was destroyed by a tidal wave on the night that magic returned when Algonquin took vengeance for the pollution of her lakes. The “Lady of the Lakes” then built a new city of “blindingly white, thousand-floor superscrapers rising from a beautiful whimsically spiraling lattice of elevated skyways” over the “rotting carcass” of the old city. Tens of thousands of people live in almost total darkness among the underground ruins in “the chaos of capitalism gone crazy”. With virtually no laws restricting business or magic, this Detroit is a place of unlimited opportunity and unlimited peril. The perfect mean-streets setting for gritty magical adventures.
Though these books contain plenty of thrilling action scenes, the Heartstriker Series is also a Family Saga centred on a hero who has always felt the odd one out. Julius has spent most of his life hiding in his room from bullying or competitive siblings and from his selfish and manipulative mother. Many unhappy teenagers will be familiar with this scenario but it is all so much worse when you have nearly a hundred siblings and your mother is likely to kill members of the family who disagree with her. In 2014 I recommended a novel which features a monstrous mother in law (Erick Setiawan’s “Of Bees and Mist”). Now I’m nominating greedy, power-mad Bethesda as one of the worst mothers in Fantasy fiction. We get to know her better as the series progresses, along with many of Julius’ brothers and sisters. Chelsie isn’t the greatest name for a character who develops into a tragic heroine but we can blame that on Bethesda since she’s supposed to have vulgar tastes in everything from jewellery (gold, gold and more gold) to her children’s names.
Bethesda has done the right thing in kicking Julius out to force him to stand on his own two feet (or four feet when in dragon form) but this isn’t accidental. She’s been nudged into it by Bob who sees gentle Julius as a vital player in the version of the future he’s trying to create. Charming Bob, with his crazy dress-sense and his strange relationship with an intelligent pigeon, seems to be a force for good in the story but may not be. Aaron keeps us guessing. An on-going battle between Dragon-Seers to shape the future is one of several intertwining plot-strands in the Heartstriker series. It is typical of Aaron’s clever plot-making that quirky details in “Nice Dragons Finish Last”, such as Bob’s pigeon or Marci’s ghost-cat, turn out to be of vital importance in the later volumes.
Two other important plot-strands involve Marci’s discovery of her huge potential as a mage and her developing relationship with Julius. To most dragons, a human is at best a pet and at worst lunch but Julius is won over by Marci’s warmth and courtesy. They become business partners and friends with a hint of more to come. Aaron shows that this partnership is successful partly because human Marci isn’t quite as nice as dragon Julius. She can be secretive and vengeful and she’s utterly determined to make the most of her talent for magic, whatever the cost. Nevertheless, it is Marci’s support which gives Julius the strength to break with draconic tradition and start doing things his way. He tries to solve problems by diplomacy and negotiation rather than physical or magical force. Whether you’re human or dragon, or a bit of both, this series could cause you to think about what sort of society you want to live in.
Each volume of the Heartstriker series contains one complete story-arc but leaves several issues unresolved. The cliff-hanger at the end of the third volume is of the kind that makes you want to kidnap the author, lock her in an attic and tell her she’s not coming out until she’s finished the sequel. Don’t worry Rachel, I have a very nice attic. Until next time…