Julius Heartstriker has a problem. Several, actually. He’s a dragon from a powerful and fecund dragon clan on a near-future Earth where the Magic Has Returned. Dragons are not trusted at all and are often actively hunted — for good reason — by anyone and anything else. But it gets worse. Julius is not the heartless and ambitiously machiavellian dragon his brothers and sisters are, much to the disappointment of Mother. He’d rather play World of Warcraft.
So when Julius gets booted from the dragon’s lair to the center of magical activity on Earth — the ruins of Detroit — and trapped into his human form with a one month time limit to prove himself, Julius is under the gun to adapt or die. But a mage on the run from Las Vegas with secrets of her own might be as much the answer to his problems as he is to hers. Especially given given the rogue spirits, other dragons and the rest of the magical nastiness the former Motor City can throw at them. Oh, and some high powered mobsters following Marci from Sin City…
Do Nice Dragons Finish Last? If Julius is not careful, he’ll just be finished.
Nice Dragons Finish Last moves Rachel Aaron, who has previously written secondary world fantasy (The Legend of Eli Monpress) and science fiction with a healthy dose of romance (the Devi Morris books under her pseudonym Rachel Bach), into new territory. Nice Dragons Finish Last is a foray into, as you might guess, urban fantasy, self-published under her “fantasy name” Rachel Aaron.
My reading experience with urban fantasy is modest at best. It’s not a subgenre about which I know every nook and cranny or can suss out every forebear and variation. I usually come to Urban Fantasy with fresh eyes. This is a double-edged sword for me as a reviewer. Well worn tropes and overdone themes and setups in the genre are often lost on me, not having read deeply enough in the subgenre to spot them. Character archetypes familiar to readers of the genre do not seem quite so overused to me as to these deep readers.
That said, the setup of the future of Nice Dragons Finish Last does remind me of a cross between the RPGs Shadowrun (a cyberpunk RPG where magic returns) and GURPS Technomancer (which mines similar territory). The semi-autonomous nature of Detroit, under the control of the spirit of the Lady of the Lake, is a *very* Shadowrun like concept, although the tone of the novel is far lighter and less grittier than that game’s usual feel. Aaron does have a social stratification in the novel, but it’s nowhere near the sheer cliff between haves and have nots in that game. In that regard, the tone more resembles the world in Technomancer, where magic has returned and is busily changing society.
The novel also features in full the strengths with which previous readers of Rachel Aaron will be familiar. Light, witty banter between characters, and especially within their own head. Fast paced, light reading that goes for fast paced entertainment as its primary virtue. Interesting relationships between characters. Like Eli and Devi, Julius makes for an engaging protagonist, with real and sympathetically understandable problems. They are transmogrified by him being a dragon and dealing with a dragon family. Marci, the Mage on the run, has significantly less detail and a slightly simpler story, but she is given enough arc and characterization to be considered a second protagonist in the story. In addition, the author provides a cast of characters of varying depth. I particularly liked Julius’ full sibling, Justin, a force of nature who might not be particularly bright and complicated (a POV from him would be boring, frankly); but having him on your side when facing sewer nasties is always a good thing. Even when he doesn’t turn into a dragon, Justin is not to be faced down lightly. When it comes to picking groups, I want him on side for the Zombie Apocalypse.
The author’s voice remains enthusiastic, engaging, and entertaining throughout. Aaron’s clear first principle in writing is to entertain above all else, and Nice Dragons Finish Last fulfills that. I think the plotting is just a bit lightly structured for my taste, though. I also wished for a little more rigorous worldbuilding — I really think the world could have been explored a little more deeply without killing the momentum of the story. I’ve many questions about her world and worldbuilding that were not answered. But that clearly is not the aim of the book. The novel ends at a clear stopping point, except for an epilogue that clearly sets up future events (and volumes) in the story. I was more than entertained enough to seek them out.