I am really annoyed because I thought I had a hidden gem review with this book. Unfortunately, every other reviewer I know apparently read Nice Dragons Finish Last, by Rachel Aaron, at the same time as me and has already gotten their review out. However, at the end of the day I am just happy that this story is getting a bunch of exposure because I have so many strong feelings about it. Nice Dragons is a self published (I think, I couldn’t actually confirm) urban fantasy with a ton of heart, and is currently criminally underread. It is the first installment in a five book series that just put out the final book this week. The plot, characters, and worldbuilding are frankly incredible, and while it suffers from some small but noticeable problems, Nice Dragons provides some of the most fun I have had in awhile.
The plot is initially simple. Julius is the youngest and smallest dragon in the Heartstriker family, a dragon clan famous for its large size (number of members) and a powerhouse in the magical world. His mother is extremely disappointed that he doesn’t seem to be doing anything with his life other than avoiding the plans and machinations of her and the other children. To remedy this, she seals his magic and throws him into Detroit with the ultimatum that if he doesn’t do something to make her proud in the next few days he will be put to death. He links up with one of his older siblings who gives him a job/quest, which will hopefully impress his mom and result in his continued existence. While a harmless starting point, things predictably spin out of control and rapidly expand in scope. Rachel has a real talent for keeping a lot of plates spinning at the same time, and the book explodes into a number of different plot threads that are all intertwined. Overall, the story held my interest and kept me engaged the whole way through – and I bought the second book immediately after finishing Nice Dragons.
The worldbuilding is really on point for an urban fantasy. I think that saying urban fantasy has lazy worldbuilding as a genre is a gross generalization, but I will say that I expect less of it than when reading a more traditional fantasy novel. Rachel took that expectation and broke its spine over her knee. Nice Dragons has an astounding amount of imaginative worldbuilding that puts you in a place that is both vaguely familiar and completely new. The book mostly takes place in a reimagined Detroit, and the changes she described paint a city that has evolved into a magical city state – self ruled and self regulated. The mix of background subjects that Rachel draws her inspiration from is also impressively diverse – including lore from England, Mesoamerica, Russia, Scandinavia, and more. This lore is used to highlight small loveable details such as the fact that Heartstrikers are feathered Aztec dragons descended from Quetzalcoatl. It is a small detail, but it felt so fresh in the landscape of traditional european dragons. Every single new idea and detail Rachel introduced in her world had me excited and awestruck.
While I enjoy heaping praise on the plot and worldbuilding, the real place that this book shines is the characters. I ADORE the full cast of this book. It is filled with unique and memorable characters from top to bottom regardless of their immediate importance. Julius’ oldest brother Bob is particularly delightful, and ranks up there with some of my all time favorite characters. Julius himself is wonderful, if a little whiny at first, and the second protagonist Marci (who you meet a little ways into the book) balances him out perfectly. Everyone feels relatable, interesting, and fun making me feel highly invested in each member of the cast.
Despite all my praise, Nice Dragons definitely has a few shortcomings. The most glaring is that a couple conversations in the book can be extremely repetitive. Julius feels like he talks about his status as the weakest dragon in his clan every ten pages, and constantly goes to pains to remind you how he usually tries to avoid his older siblings. Occasionally, his frequent talks of how scary his siblings are can lead to some great emotional payoff when you finally meet them, but often I found myself thinking “yes, yes, I know” when reading pages. Additionally, there is a romance subplot that can be painfully awkward sometimes, though I do like the general direction that it is going.
I read Nice Dragons Finish Last in almost a single sitting, and bought the sequel immediately after setting it down. This by itself should tell you my overall feelings about the book, I highly recommend it to everyone. The Heartstrikers is shaping up to be my favorite urban fantasy ever, and will definitely place well among all books that I have read. If you want to read about a lovable dragon taking on impossible odds, surrounded by fantastic characters, in a kick ass world – then this might be the book for you.
Rating: Nice Dragons Finish Last – 8.0/10