The Heartstrikers Series – Rachel Aaron (Spoilers)

Julius Heartstriker, youngest son of Bethesda Heartstriker, is a Nice Dragon. Which is a bit of a problem when ‘nice’ is seen as weak, and the rest of your family considers you a disgrace to dragonkind. Instead of going out into the world and carving a place for himself, as any proper dragon would, Julius prefers to keep his head down and hang out in his room, playing online games with humans (whom most dragons consider as either playthings or pets), or taking online classes in every subject imaginable.

Finally tiring of her wayward son and his lack of draconic traits, Bethesda storms into Julius’ room, seals his magic (meaning he cannot transform into a dragon but is forced to remain in his human form) and dumps him in the DFZ: the Detroit Free Zone, a notoriously lawless city (think Chicago during the Capone years) which is run by the dragon-hating Water Spirit, Algonquin aka, The Lady of the Lakes. He stays one night on the couch in his sister Jessica’s apartment (Jessica is a doctor and is fully expected to be running her own hospital within a few short years) then his mother gives him a task – prove himself to be a proper dragon (which generally means ripping people off for one’s own gain, rather than ripping people’s heads-off in this near-future setting), or she’ll eat him. Oh, and he’s only got a month to do this – and because his dragon is sealed, he cannot access his fire or magic – so he’ll have to find ways around the limits Bethesda’s imposed on him.

He is tasked with helping his older brother Ian’s girlfriend Svena to retrieve her wayward sister, Katya. Like Julius, Katya is the youngest of the Three Sisters Clan of dragons, and also something of a disappointment to her family. Rather than hiding in her room, however, Katya runs away a lot. Svena wants to bring her back home and via Ian, tasks Julius with the job, giving him a silver chain with a spell on it to placate Katya. Julius has to put the chain on Katya and then Svena will be able to collect her sister and take her home. Unsurprisingly, Julius is reluctant, but agrees to the task because he wants to be allowed to return to his own home, and to have his dragon form unsealed again.

To the surprise of almost everyone (certainly to Bethesda’s, and even to Julius’), the ‘Nice Dragon’ not only survives the quest he’s given, but he manages to broker a relationship between his clan and that of the Three Sisters, the oldest clan of dragons (all of whom are female), rather than getting eaten as nearly everyone, including Julius, was expecting.

From here, Julius goes on to overthrow his mother (a move that definitely surprises Julius as well as the rest of the Heartstrikers) – but instead of doing the obviously draconic thing of killing his mother and putting her head on a spike somewhere to terrify the rest of the Heartstrikers into obedience, he has her dragon form sealed (a tiny bit of poetic justice!), and instead proposes forming a three dragon Council to run their clan so that it can be run in a manner that encourages dragons to concentrate on what they’re good at, instead of encouraging them to destroy each other. This is also considered very un-draconic, of course, but Julius got the idea from humans and he introduces his clan (who are all very powerful, properly draconic dragons) to the concept of elections and doing things democratically so that they can become even more successful in their various enterprises instead of being subject to the whims of their mother Bethesda, who punishes any dragon against whom she takes by sending her daughter Chelsie – the clan enforcer – to punish or kill them.

Julius is aided and abetted by the human Mage, Marci – who is extremely talented and capable – and by his oldest brother, Bob, formally Brohomir, the Heartstrikers’ Seer who has made Julius the lynchpin of a fantastically convoluted plot to improve the lot of all dragons, not just the Heartstrikers. Bob, in turn, is aided by the eldest of the Heartstriker dragons, Amelia who, like Bob, is the only surviving member of her particular clutch – Bethesda, unusually, produced large clutches of eggs at regular intervals, leading to much snide commentary from other dragons who often referred to her as ‘the Broodmare’. Amelia is also known as the Planeswalker as she spends very little time in ‘our’ reality, since she fears Bethesda will pre-emptively kill her, rather than let Amelia challenge Bethesda for the leadership of their clan (which Amelia doesn’t want!). Bob is also, somewhat more reluctantly, aided by Chelsie, the clan enforcer, who is one of the only two remaining members of C-clutch (Bethesda gave her children alphabetical names running from A-clutch through to J-clutch).

Aaron’s Heartstrikers series successfully inverts the toxic masculinity trope by allowing Julius to succeed at whatever he turns his attention to without using violence or treating other beings (humans, dragons, Spirits) as disposable to be used and then dropped. Of course, Julius does not have it easy – during the course of the series both Marci and Amelia die. And while their deaths aren’t permanent (this is a world with magic, after all), they nevertheless have a significant impact on Julius. He and Marci have fallen in love – though, being a Nice Dragon, Julius has largely kept his feelings to himself – and his grief at Marci’s loss is palpable throughout the chapters that follow (he literally takes to his bed and won’t stir until, eventually, he is forced to do so by his older siblings).

Julius is a self-sacrificing noble Nice Dragon – he literally dies to save Algonquin, despite the fact that she hates dragons. He insists on going to talk to her in the hopes of saving her from the Leviathan, a Nameless End – an extra-planar being from outside of ‘our’ reality which is quite literally destroying our reality. The Leviathan has infested all of Algonquin’s waters, meaning she will soon die as the Leviathan is sucking up all of her water which, being a Water Spirit, she needs in order to survive. However, Julius knows that she can make use of dragon blood at a pinch, so after talking to her, and establishing that she would not use the Leviathan again if given a second chance, he swallows the last of her Leviathan-infested water, then as the Leviathan destroys him from the inside, Algonquin flows out of Julius into the pool of blood that’s forming on the ground in front of him from the Leviathan ripping his body apart, and she takes Marci to safety, at Julius’ request, and Julius is killed by the Leviathan.

But while a dragon’s body can be destroyed quite easily, it’s harder to destroy a dragon’s fire – which is the core, essential part of a dragon in the same way that the soul is supposed to be the core, essential part of a human. Bob is able to capture Julius’ fire before it goes out, and he, with the help of many more dragons (not all of them Heartstrikers, and one of them his mother Bethesda, whom Julius – and pretty much everyone else! – had thought still despised him for being a Nice Dragon instead of a blood-thirsty predator) is able to restore Julius back to life by the dragons giving him the magic of their fire.

In the end, all’s well that ends well – Julius and Marci get married, and Dragonkind across the world agrees to work together instead of working against each other, with Julius taking over running the DFZ so that it’s no longer a lawless city, and Marci becoming the Archmage (but without the usual long white beard!).

Note: Last Dragon Standing is not out until March 1 – I was fortunate to read an ARC of it.

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