No Good Dragon Goes Unpunished by Rachel Aaron (Heartstrikers: Book 3)

After some heavy-going science fiction, I was looking for something light, but perhaps not too fluffy, something pacey and exciting to get stuck into which would thoroughly grab my attention.

Whilst the second Heartstrikers book had been as colourful as the first, it had raised the stakes, increased the tension and graduated from popcorn into a tale with a fair amount of meat behind it. With this volume's title, it was also obvious that something wicked would be coming this way, particularly since I knew going in this book would be dealing with the mirky, ever backstabbing world of dragon politics, sadly that's not what I got.

Before getting into the reasons why, beware of spoilers for the first two Heartstriker novels.

Julius has done the unthinkable! The defeat of Estella the Northern Star has resulted in Bethesda, terrifying matriarch of the Heartstriker clan, sealed and seemingly powerless, leaving Julius himself, the nicest, and in many dragons' eyes weakest of all of his clan in charge. Julius is determined that there is a better way than the rule of might makes right, meaning he must introduce to a clan of powerful dragons the value of cooperation, and the concept of democracy. Yet, even with her magic and draconic form sealed, Bethesda is still dangerous, particularly when she still holds the absolute loyalty of Julius' sister, Chelsea, the clan enforcer, and when Julius’ newly formed council still has one crucial seat remaining, since the Heartstrikers are no strangers to competition.

Meanwhile, Julius' partner Marci has troubles of her own; and not just how to catch the attention of the dragon she loves. Several powerful magical beings, from the United Nations chief expert on sorcery to the malevolent spirit Algonquin have made Marci the target of their interest, claiming the bond Marci shares with her spirit cat gives her the potential to become the 21st century's first Merlin, a mage of unknown abilities and unimagined power, and with Algonquin threatening all-out war, Marci must figure out not only how to become a Merlin, but how to avoid being someone else's weapon.

With a move to Heartstriker mountain and a plot centred far more around political posturing than dramatic escapes, by far the strongest aspect of this book is its characters. Marci and Julius continue to be adorably in love, even as they both wind up wrapped in so many other concerns, but it is no exaggeration to say that not one of the supporting characters here is wasted. Every character is given a little extra nuance, and a touch of personality, and though; naturally, we spend more time with some than others, even those who only have short appearances, such as Justin, Julius tough as nails brother who skitters between loyal fighter and insulting arrogance, or Bob, aka Brohamir, the Heartstriker' clan seer with his plots within plots and hilariously laid back attitude, still make an impression.

Aaron also introduces some memorable new characters, like Fredric; Julius draconic butler, and Sir Myron, the United Nations pompous magic expert, and give each both personality and motivations of their own. Indeed, I really liked how Fredric graduates from comically overzealous man servant to someone I genuinely cared about once we learned more of his backstory. Slightly changing the focus also let Aaron highlight different aspects of existing characters. The rivalry between Julius’ eldest sister Amelia, and Svenna the white witch, only touched on in the previous book, here is expanded to a fantastic double act which pretty much defines the term frenemies, despite Amelia's rather comical alcoholism, or Svenna's half political and full earnest betrothal to Julius' cunning brother Ian.

Another major character who receives exploration here is Chelsea, (whose image apparently graces the cover of the print edition), indeed, right from the prologue flashback in 16th century China (jarring though it is to hear the name "Chelsea", in sixteenth century China), it becomes clear that this story is almost as much Chelsea's as it is Julius' or Marci's. Indeed, I like the fact that Aaron obviously had depths in mind for the Heartstrikers shadowy assassin, even when she was just turning up and being menacing in the first book, depths which here we get to explore in more detail, for all that the stone faced Chelsea would really rather keep those depths hidden! Neither is Chelsea the only character to show more than just their terrifying exterior, since Marci's spirit cat ghost, who alternates (as Marci herself says), between sweet and creepy, also receives major attention and development with most of Marci's plotline revolving around her relationship to ghost.

It is also through the medium of her characters that Aaron introduces further aspects of the world, with explanations about the formation of spirits or even the workings of dragon fire revealed in the course of very naturalistic dialogue. In particular, Marci's growing understanding of what Ghost is, and the implications this might have for the future, are quite a fascinating subject in themselves, as is the mechanics of what exactly the Merlin will turn out to be. Like the wonderfully complex game played with Julius' prophecy in the last book, the reason why Marci manifests a chosen destiny, and how this chosen status works are refreshingly nuanced.

Unfortunately, for all of these strengths, the book has some extremely telling weaknesses, mostly to do with pacing, posing and punching. Where the first book was largely an action filled chase, and the second focused on the tension of several looming threats, here, Aaron constantly promises tension, but fails to deliver. Political plots can become stale if there is little at stake, and though Aaron tells us (through Julius' perspective), just how supposedly dire the idea of dragon politics is, and how likely assassination attempts are, matters do not go beyond the level of posturing for the first eight of the book’s almost nineteen hours. Though getting a close look at the place Julius grew up in is interesting, so much of the book involved Julius and Marci simply wandering around, not particularly engaged in purposeful activity which Aaron nevertheless still felt the need to describe, such as a large chunk of text involving Julius going to sleep in his bedroom, lying down for a scene, then deciding to move, getting up, wandering around a bit and finally going to sleep somewhere else.

It is not that any of the scenes are themselves individually bad, indeed there is a lot of character building here, however, everything is padded out to a rather ridiculous level, with both significant and insignificant events included almost arbitrarily, thus, a description of some plot vital details of Chelsea's quarters is interspersed with a discussion of her couch and decorations. Of course, if Aaron had some tension or overriding plot thrumming away to keep us focused, then I'd be quite okay waiting for the payoff; I often find myself less critical of slow pacing than other reviewers, but here, the seeming aimlessness of so many scenes stretched even my patience.

It also doesn't help that Aaron's style here was decidedly clunky, frequently repeating nouns, or including redundancies; a problem likely exacerbated by listening to the audiobook. The way that the prose could feel at the same time both short on atmosphere, and yet too long winded, significantly contributed to things feeling directionless, especially when Aaron spelt matters out a little too obviously. Unfortunately, being primarily a utilitarian stylist, when not engaging with quirky characters or big action sequences, Aaron's style doesn't have the narrative flair or poetic touch to really hold attention through description alone if the plot isn't moving.

Some major plot points also surround a mystery so obvious that it makes the characters look decidedly dense for not working it out. Indeed, given that the revelation of this mystery is going to be left for the next volume; for all of the increasingly unsubtle hints Aaron gives us in the narration, it feels rather like a version of A New Hope in which Obi-Wan tells Luke that his father was a powerful Jedi who wears a black cape, wields a red lightsaber and has breathing difficulties, a fact which again, made things feel decidedly draggy, especially when Julius was vigorously banging his head against a wall for lack of his ability to solve this mystery.

While Aaron's character dialogue was often a strength, occasionally she would fall into rather serious preaching. Julius' niceness up until this point has been mostly shown rather than explained, however here, Julius felt the need to engage in long discourses on how "violence wasn't the way", and how much stronger the clan would be if dragons didn't kill each other. A small amount of this (especially during political speeches), would be fine, however, much as I agreed with Julius a lot of the time, his sentiment was repeatedly rammed home so often that I began to sympathise with the more aggressive dragons who just wanted him to shut up! Even the villains here often were a little too explanatory in their nastiness, although Bethesda stayed the right side of blunt, and was always a breath of fresh, evil scented air whenever she appeared.

I will say however, for all that Julius niceness was sometimes a little too emphasised, the fact that he could seemingly solve so many problems by culling a few irredeemably villainous dragons like Bethesda, but utterly refused to do so on principle did make him both a heroic, and almost frustratingly flawed protagonist, although this would've been more telling if matters had felt more dangerous.

Marci's plot also suffered a serious problem; a surfeit of power, thus when, eight solid hours in!!, we finally had a physical confrontation, Marci shrugged it off as if it were nothing, also undermining any tension in the political plot that could've been had by threatening her to get to Julius. Indeed, this made the whole discussion of her becoming the Merlin feel rather superfluous, since why would I be concerned about a character becoming more powerful who already seems pretty untouchable, despite supposedly being a human in a mountain full of immortal dragons. When Marci was taken captive later on, I found myself wondering why the cavalry was even bothering to attempt to rescue her when she was so obviously going to rescue herself.

When Julius finally got into a fight it also suffered from Aaron's lack of descriptive detail and consequences, since while having a character badly injured sounds terrible on paper, with no description of the pain, and a magical healing afterwards, Julius injuries feel more like loss of a few hp in an rpg battle than sustaining serious wounds, quite apart from the fact that I was absolutely certain Julius would come out of it alive and unscathed. This was a shame, since if matters had felt more serious, the resolution to Julius' fight, based as it was on both Julius' niceness and some surprising draconic honour, could have been quite a wonderful one.

Matters did pick up in the book’s final quarter, as things moved back to the Detroit Free Zone and Algonquin entered the picture, especially since this let us get a much closer look at the sinister Lady of the Lakes and her motivations than we've had so far, however, given that we were already thirteen hours in, this didn't make up for the previous stalling, although it did let matters build to a rather surprising point in the ending. even if the aforesaid mystery remained annoyingly, and unsubtly hinted at, things finally felt as if they were moving. With Julius; at last, inaugurating the first Heartstriker council meeting. For once we actually got some quick political scheming and dealing, based very much around characters and personalities, with counter proposals and threats knocking around like ping pong balls. Indeed, if the politics, the dialogue and indeed the action generally, had been this well paced throughout the rest of the book, this would be a very different review.

The ending also featured two attempted gut punch moments. One of these (involving a side character), was a genuine surprise and a fascinating piece of setup for the next volume. While I'm not sure whether the punch has fully landed or not at this point given the rather amorphous nature of the worlds' magic, it's going to be interesting to see where it goes, especially with it being a potentially devastating game changer for someone who I have come to like.

Unfortunately, this was the secondary gut punch. The primary gut punch completely missed its mark, firstly because Aaron failed to allow it to change the direction of some characters in the way it should have done, and secondly because she straight out undermines it in the epilogue. Indeed, as unfortunately with rather a lot in this volume, the inclusion of the epilogue very much suggests that No Good Dragon; as a self-published work, missed out on editorial attention, since I'm fairly sure an editor would have recommended leaving off the epilogue, and so giving that gut punch adequate force.

All in all, while No Good Dragon Goes Unpunished undoubtedly had its strengths, especially in unique world building and colourful characters, the lack of tension, lack of style and plodding plot definitely brings this one down. Indeed, after the rousing triumph that was the series' second book, it feels all the more disappointing.

That being said, the book’s good points are still enough to make me want to carry on with the series, especially to see what becomes of lots of people, and (more importantly for a dracophyle like me), dragons, who I have grown quite fond of.

6/10 Political debates can really drag-on

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