PROS: Fantastic and memorable characters; spectacular world building; fast paced adventure; snappy dialog with a lot of humor; completely unique magical system.
CONS: Would have liked more info about the rest of the world after the magic apocalypse.
BOTTOM LINE: A compelling first volume in a new series that will knock your socks off so hard they’ll leave smoking holes in your wall.
Urban fantasy is a bloated genre right now. There are shelves crammed with witches, mages, vampires and werewolves all fighting for their lives in wrecked cities. It takes a lot to stand out in urban fantasy and Nice Dragons Finish Last is one of those rare gems. It’s inventive, uproariously clever and completely un-put-down-able. The characters are fascinating, likable and multi-dimensional. The plot is furiously paced with many surprising twists and turns that will leave you breathless. I could not get enough of this book.
Here’s the setup: Julius Heartstriker is the youngest and smallest dragon in the violent, ruthlessly ambitious Heartstriker clan. Enraged by his apparent uselessness, his mother locks away his dragon form and leaves him in the post-apocalyptic remains of Detroit with just one month to prove himself worthy. If he fails, he can kiss his existence goodbye. Julius must navigate a staggeringly strange city that hates dragons and he must find a way to prove himself before he ends up dead. A chance meeting with a down-on-her-luck mage gives him a way to save his own neck if he can manage to stay alive long enough.
As a protagonist, Julius is an absolute joy to follow around. He’s spent his whole life hiding from his powerful dragon family and now he’s been thrust into their plots, ploys and drama. He’s a pawn, a toy and a miserable failure as a dragon. Locked away into his weaker human form, he has nearly no chance to prove himself as worthy of the menacing Heartstriker name and is looking at certain death. That’s until he meets Marci, a mage running away from a Vegas gangster who desperately wants a magical item she’s taken from him. Throw in a job from Julius’ brother to find a missing member of a rival dragon clan and you have the set up for an explosive, imaginative story.
The setting of Nice Dragons Finish Last is a destroyed and unrecognizable Detroit. Magic slams back into the world like an asteroid and suddenly old spirits and gods are throwing their weight around. A spirit in the nearby Great Lakes reacts violently to the pollution in their waters and destroys Detroit in response. Built upon its ruins is the Detroit Free Zone (DFZ), a rich futuristic city that glitters with the most up to date technology and most expensive magics. Dragons are not welcome in the city, so it’s an extra insult that Julius has been thrown there by his mother. Under the city is the true ruins of Detroit, with crumbling houses and waterlogged warehouses where anything can be procured if you’re willing to pay the price. Marci has set up her headquarters down there and with her help, Julius has a fighting chance at survival. That is, until they discover that the stakes are much, much higher than they ever imagined.
The excellent story is what makes this book shine. Julius and Marci have amazing chemistry and they work well together. Marci is tough as nails and deviously smart. Her father has been murdered by a conniving Vegas gangster and now she’s on the run to keep the magical orb she’s taken from him safe. Julius is drawn into her troubles just as much as she’s drawn into his. Together they work to find a way to stay alive while rival dragons and gangsters try to kill them. One of the stand-out characters is Julius’ brother, Bob. He’s an ancient seer who is just a touch insane in a very Mad Hatter way. He enjoys cryptic jokes and sending random “helpful” messages. He even has a pet pigeon. He’s gloriously fun to watch and he really makes the book shine. Other Heartstriker siblings weave in and out of the story (his brother Justin is also deeply fun), but Bob is just a complete delight. Every character, even the most minor ones, are infused with real color and make the story pop.
The world building Rachel Aaron does is at a master level. The world is realistic, daring and interesting. I couldn’t get enough of it. Even better, every part of the world makes sense. There are real consequences to people’s choices and actions. The world she’s created is consistent and well drawn. The dragon clans are endlessly fascinating and their politics and infighting are delicious to read. The history of the world after magic has come back is well thought out and plausible. I only wish we knew more about the entire world and not just Detroit’s post-magic fate. Advances in technology are well explained and the world feels exciting. There is never a dull moment in the DFZ! The plotting is tight, with minimal holes, and it is so satisfying to read how everything comes to a head towards the end. This story had everything you could want from an urban fantasy outing; dragons and danger and magic, oh my!
I can not say enough good things about Nice Dragons Finish Last. It’s a great new urban fantasy series that doesn’t rely on old tropes to tell its story. It breaks new ground and forges ahead on a path of its own creation. Dragons are a very cool new fantasy creature to create a series around and they’re used with great success. The various plots intertwine beautifully and the end is so good it’ll make your hair stand on end. It’s a fast paced adventure full of enough amazing characters and creative plotting to choke a dragon. Smart, inventive and deeply fun, this series is going to be one to watch!