Nice Dragons Finish Last by Rachel Aaron (Heartstrikers: Book 1)

As I have mentioned before, I am a bit of a dracophile (which really should be a word), that is to say, I love dragons. I’m also keen on books with protagonists who are simply nice people trying their best, so the title and premise of this one grabbed my attention right away. I was a wee bit surprised when I found out I was reading a hodgepodge urban fantasy/near future sf when I was expecting traditional high fantasy. However, one of the many things I like about dragons is that they always go where they please and can turn up in unexpected places, so I was more than happy to just run along and see where the ride would take me.

In a late 21st century world where a meteor crash has reawakened all the old magics, some of the most powerful beings on the planet are the dragons, aloof, calculating and constantly engaged in a Machiavellian struggle for clan dominance. Julius is not a very good dragon. Youngest of the influential Heartstriker clan, he’d much rather play online games than clan politics, prefers talking to fighting and is; to the constant grief of the clan matriarch Bethesda, nice! This is why Julius finds himself sealed into his human form and exiled to the Detroit Free Zone, a spirit ruled city where dragons are outlawed, with one month to dragon-up or get eaten. Meanwhile Marci, graduate student in magic and professional thaumaturgic mage is also on the run, though her pursuer is Bixby, one of the most powerful crooks in Las Vegas. Fortunately for Julius, the help of a bubbly, streetwise magic expert is just what he needs, and fortunately for Marci, she’s run into the one dragon on the planet nice enough to help her out. Unfortunately for both of them, time is ticking, danger is closing in, and both Bixby’s irrational pursuit of Marci and Julius exile might just be moves in a far larger game.

One of the first things that struck me about Nice Dragons Finish Last, was just how light hearted it was. Urban fantasy doesn’t tend to do fun. There can of course be humorous situations, witty dialogue and the odd comical character, but because urban fantasy tends to deal with dark underworlds; both criminal and supernatural, contrast crumbling cityscapes with the glittering palaces of the super-rich, and often trades in gritty noire clichés, “fun” isn't usually on the agenda. Somehow however, Aaron manages to give a wonderfully breezy, light hearted spin to even horribly dire circumstances, such as when Julius is being threatened with death by his mother, or roundly berated by his sister Chelsea for daring to let humans live after an altercation. Of course, Aaron’s setting is not the typical urban fantasy, being a future world of self-driving cars, free floating spirits and magically augmented mobile phones similar to the roleplaying setting Shadowrun, however somehow Aaron makes even a capitalist jungle of a city, where the rich live on gleaming skyways above the ruined old town and literally anything and anyone is up for sale, , into a fun place to be. Whether visiting Marci and her cat covered derelict basement, or bohemian parties full of stoned shamans, the whole thing just comes across as a rip-roaring good time.

The characters were also lots of fun to be around. In another author’s hands, Julius might have descended into the depths of emo, however even when Julius is engaging in quite justified resentment against others unfair expectations, there is enough of a tinge of overdone humour to keep Julius’ exasperation the right side of likable. Similarly, Marci, as a tiny, bubbly bundle of energy with definite opinions of her own often dropped into the comic, even considering she’s on the run, grieving the death of her father and in pretty desperate circumstances herself.

Character in general is one of Aaron’s strongest aspects, especially with Julius’ siblings who ranged from Ian, the typically ambitious draconic schemer, to Bob, a mysterious and powerful seer, who managed to be irritatingly relaxed and offbeat even as he plots and delivers dire warnings. Even the more typical dragons such as the clan enforcer Julius’ sister Chelsea, (an odd name for an eight hundred year old dragon), had a little tinge of something else to them, and Julius’ brother Justin managed to straddle the line between being the typically likable but dim charge first ask questions later fighter archetype, and an insufferably arrogant draconic arse.

Aaron’s writing style is adequate, not perhaps as poetic as some, or with the gritty on the nose immediacy of authors like Jim Butcher, but still a step above the bog standard narrated film script style employed by some authors, though she is sometimes a little too repetitive with the same descriptive details. The writing was however competent enough to highlight Aaron’s good points, such as the entertaining tone, fast pace and amusing cast, which meant at least at the start of the novel, I didn’t mind that so much of the action felt somewhat predictable.

There is a femme fatale, a missing girl, meetings in high class restaurants, and a huge glowing gold ball of McGuffin. The relationship between Julius and Marci also takes a familiar path, with both of them attracted to each other, but Julius sense of fairness getting in the way and causing misunderstandings. There is even a scene in which Marci is grabbed in an alley (because apparently it’s easy enough to stop her casting spells by simply covering her mouth; even though she writes down most of her magic), and Julius of course steps up to kick some serious bottom.

To begin with, these weren’t tropes I minded, since everything was so much fun and the cast so likable I genuinely wanted them to succeed. Over thirteen hours however, I can’t deny the book definitely wore out its welcome. A major contributing factor to this, was the fact that every single confrontation ended the same way. Julius and Marci get into trouble, the situation looks desperate, then circumstances would drop in to save them, often through hitherto unmentioned facts about the world or Julius past. Julius might be sealed in his human form and bemoan his lack of aggression and combat skills, however that doesn’t stop him turning into Chuck Norris when his lady is in danger. Julius doesn’t have any magic, well not until he needs to confront a magical creature. Julius can’t use a sword, well isn’t it lucky that someone happens to have an enchanted sword that never misses. Whilst I didn’t mind these moments at first, I confess that towards the end of the book, I was actually wanting Marci to get snatched, just because seeing Marci connive her way out of Bixby’s clutches and Julius have to come up with a rescue plan would be far more interesting than just seeing yet another occasion when the pair are attacked, brought down to the wire, and unexpectedly saved by a last minute reprieve.

It also did not help that Aaron got a little over enthusiastic in the narration with every character telling us how nice Julius was. In the case of Marci this was understandable, and I confess it would be hypocritical of me in the extreme to complain about tiny, brown haired American ladies who rather over enthuse about their partner’s intensive niceness; not with who I’m married to. However, when even hard as nails dragons like Justin, Chelsea or Ian spoke admiringly of Julius’ nice qualities, things seemed to be going a little far.

I also found Aaron’s writing rather inconsistent in terms of viewpoint, since literally 95% of the action is from Julius’ perspective, so the moments when we went elsewhere were a little jarring. Speaking of inconsistency, a few aspects of the book’s planned world also seemed a little strange. We’re told for example that this is the late 21st century, yet we’re still having references to light sabres and Narnia. We’re told that most humans must gather magic from elsewhere, yet there are magitech phones and pieces of technology freely used by the general population, indeed Aaron unfortunately fell rather badly into the trap of wanting magic; especially Marci’s rigorously academic thaumaturgy, to be internally consistent, yet include many occasions when magic just acted according to what the plot needed it to do without much rhyme or reason. Probably the most glaring inconsistency of all is the question of why Julius is so radically different from the rest of his family, and indeed his species, particularly with him sharing the same environment, combat abilities and upbringing. Indeed I was almost a little sorry Julius ended up having awesome magical and martial talents, since the idea of a dragon who has nothing but his niceness to rely on in a world where everyone is more powerful than him is a premise I would’ve liked to have seen explored further.

Unfortunately, the book’s ending was very much a product of its structure. This is not to say the ending was inherently bad, just that most of the beats it took were so expected according to genre tropes it felt ultimately anticlimactic. Julius of course ends up saving the day; although more it seemed by authorial intervention and circumstance than his own efforts. Meanwhile, we have plot hooks for future books in the series as obvious as a pirate’s right hand, from hints about Julius having a “special destiny” to the McGuffin quite literally opening up new horizons, to Julius and Marci deciding to setup a detective agency together, after all, what else could they do in a city where there is a bounty for magical creatures, and a surfeit of nasty beasties roaming the sewers and praying on the poor. I was also mildly disappointed that we didn’t see more actual dragons being dragons in the book, just their ever so beautiful (and much more boring), human forms.

In general, I absolutely agree with those reviews who characterise Nice Dragons Finish Last as popcorn. Its sweet, light, fluffy, and you know exactly what you’re getting, though a serving of popcorn this large will probably pall a little before you finish it. That being said, popcorn is still welcome from time to time, and Aaron’s particular brand of popcorn is well made enough to be nice.

7/10 You can laugh at this live dragon

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