One Good Dragon Deserves Another by Rachel Aaron (Heartstrikers: Book 1)

As with Brightly Burning, I will freely admit that part of the reason I started back into Rachel Aaron’s saga of the world’s nicest dragon was because I wanted something light and fluffy in a time of fairly heavy darkness. Yet, once again I found myself getting rather more than I bargained for.

This has been the happiest month of Julius’ life. True, his mother’s seal still locks him into his human form, but having spent a month setting up a new magical pest control business, helping out the poor in the spirit haunted Detroit free zone, he really doesn’t miss being a dragon all that much. Best of all is the bubbly thaumaturgist Marci, his business partner and best friend, who might even become more than a friend someday.

Unfortunately, all of this comes crashing down when Julius’ mother Bethesda, a dragon matriarch who makes Tywin Lannister look like father of the year, turns up in Julius’ living room. Julius might be a weak failure as a dragon, but he’s still part of the Heartstriker clan, and so a tool Bethesda can make use of, especially when the Heartstriker’s enemy; the powerful ice dragon Estella the Northern Star whose sister Julius previously saved, is apparently extending a hand of friendship.

As Julius finds himself unwillingly drawn into the belligerent politics and traps within traps that threaten his clan, Marci is taken captive. Algonquin, ruler of the Detroit free zone, dragon hating spirit of the lakes and her hunter, the brutal Viking water spirit Vann Jeger, have got wind that Marci is connected to a dragon, and won’t rest until they have that dragon’s head as a trophy.

As the net draws tighter, Julius and Marci find themselves pieces in a far larger game, a game which stretches back into the mists of time and threatens to consume the future in a blaze of draconic fury.

When finishing the previous book, the direction of the series seemed so obvious Rachel Aaron might as well have drawn a map. Julius and Marci engage in monster of the week problem solving with a side order of unresolved romantic tension, with all things draconic, from clan politics to actual dragon appearance held firmly under the surface where it wouldn’t disturb the even keel of the good ship status quo. I am pleased to say however, that Rachel Aaron here not only managed to prove my predictions of predictability entirely false, but also to significantly improve on many of the issues I had with the first book too.

One of the most significant, is simply that this book features many more dragons. From a visit to Heartstriker mountain right at the beginning, to the chance to get to see several members of Julius’ family (not to mention Estella’s, up close, getting a much clearer idea of their personalities and the world they come from).

Also, I have to say, for anyone who loves dragons as much as I do, the chance to see several of the series principle dragons forsake their beautiful (and much more boring), human forms and take on their full draconic glory was just plain awesome, particularly since Aaron is pretty imaginative with her dragons (I love the idea of the Heartstriker feathered serpents).

It’s not just in terms of outward magnificence that I got my dragon love catered to either, since Aaron here delves far more clearly into the law, origin, and powers of her dragons, and how they contrast to the spirits of the earth. Indeed, I find it interesting that wherein so much magical fiction earth spirits are seen as benevolent saviours, here they are very much amoral powers with their own agendas, agendas which rarely concern themselves with such trifling things as humanity. Indeed, Even though the book’s villains such as the brutal Vann Jegger or the coolly dangerous Estella are not necessarily complex, being basically motivated by hatred in one way or another, Aaron has that rare gift of making villains who are obviously in the foreground, but who don’t feel either like an anti-climax or a cliché, even when being just simply evil for the sake of of evil.

Part of the reason for this might be because of one of the book’s strongest aspects, the way its plot is structured.

In the previous book, the actual confrontations Julius and Marci tended to get involved in were rapid, small scale and quickly over, featuring attacks by thugs or magical vermin. Here, though there is probably the same amount of action overall, the confrontations are built up to over time raising both the level of the tension and the stakes involved, and all feature actual named villains with their own ethos and personality.

For example, where in the previous novel, despite the crook Bigsby’s thugs constantly trying to capture Marci, she was never actually held captive or required to rescue herself, here, the very first thing that happens is Marci’s kidnap by Vann Jeger, necessitating her to engage in some very fast talking, and yet also, placing both her and Julius into a severely dire situation as they face the upcoming duel with the powerful, dragon slaying water spirit.

That being said, confrontations do still slightly suffer from the fact that I always knew this was the kind of story where something would always turn up to pull the good guys out of trouble at the last minute. There was one point I did wonder if Aaron was going to go that extra step and include a legitimate Martin moment for one of her very likable secondary cast members, showing she had the fangs to give the book some real danger, and had she done this I would be adding a few points onto the rating. However, Aaron was clearly not willing to go quite that far.

I also did feel, that despite some otherwise exceptional world building, Aaron still suffers from the problem of magic, spirits or seers fulfilling the roles she intends them to in the plot a little too conveniently. For example, much of the plot revolves around a battle of future manipulation between the two seers Bob and Estella; a duel which plays with the idea of Julius as the chosen one in a very unique way. Estella’s magical weapon in this duel seemed to change purpose rather radically, going from mind control, to time manipulation, to simply being powerful for power’s sake. Given how downright unique the explanation of this weapon turns out to be, and the whole process of how dragon seers influence the future, it’s a shame its effects weren’t slightly more consistent.

Likewise, Marci got something of a magical get out of trouble free card part way through, a card which; despite an awesome presence, seemed a little too obvious in it’s use to resolve an otherwise dire situation with something of a deus ex Machina.

That being said, I can forgive Aaron a little contrivance here simply on the basis that all of her characters, dragon or human are so damn distinctive, we genuinely still want them to succeed even if that success feels a little too lucky. Julius remains just the best sort of protagonist, with his trademark niceness never getting in the way of his personality, whilst those around him, from the vile Bethesda, to his relaxed brother Bob, to the newly introduced eldest Heartstriker child Amelia (a dragon in her own way as unusual as Julius himself), all had their own quirks and identity, complete with snappy dialogue, believable emotions, and (best of all), very much their own concerns and desires; it really is wonderfully jarring when an otherwise comparatively decent natured dragon talks about “owning” humans.

Though the dialogue is extremely well done, I do wish Aaron had perhaps refined her descriptive language a little, particularly in awesome moments, since whilst her actual imagination is amazing, sights such as a duel between an ice dragon and a magical fire dragon, or Vann Jegger being literally made of water with shell armour really could have done with a little more poetic flair.

As a last negative point, it mildly irritated me that Aaron frequently had characters fully explain events we’d just witnessed. Indeed, this was one respect where the fact that the series is actually self-published, and so presumably lacked as much editorial attention shows through, since I’m fairly confident an editor would have pointed out that having characters explain to each other events we’d just seen happen was rather redundant.

All that being said, so much here is just plain good, especially around the way the characters interact, with humour, emotion and a lot of development. In particular, whilst as someone who ended up married to his best friend I am a little confused by the idea that Julius worries that expressing romantic feelings towards Marci will “ruin their friendship,” at the same time, it is a concern I have heard other people mention, albeit one I personally find less understandable. Also, on a romantic level, Aaron does the absolutely unthinkable and has her characters actually talk to each other like real adult human beings, admitting when they’ve made mistakes, discussing their feelings delicately, and even engaging in tentative affection prior to full on committing to a relationship.

My only worry with Marci is that where Aaron; with her highly individual take on how dragon seers and prophecy works, nicely avoided the standard “chosen one” routine with Julius, she might be falling straight into it with Marci, although such questions will have to wait on the next book.

With a conclusion that partly even justifies some of the necessary authorial contrivance to reach it, features some great changes in status quo, and threatens some major events to come, the stage is set for this series to just go on improving.

All in all, One Good Dragon Deserves Another is an absolute treat. Though it still suffers from feeling a wee bit obviously set up in places, so much here that was shallow, unexplored or seemingly cut out in the first book is given depth, colour, and a good serving of awesome dragon fire!

Whilst the first book was popcorn, this second book, though still sweet, offers so much more to get your teeth into, as well as promising much more to come.

8/10 A family awash with fire and blood and Machiavellian politics; no, not that one

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