You Should be Reading Rachel Aaron
The world sucks. You know this. I know this. We all know this. Some of us are trying to make it better. Some of us are trying to make it worse. We all know it won’t be great in our lifetimes.
So we escape.
If you’re the type to escape into books, I’d like to recommend two series from Rachel Aaron. Heartstriker’s is about a dragon who’s tired of dragons being all draconic. The DFZ series is about a young Korean woman who leaves college with a “useless” degree and a mountain of debt. The latter takes place in the same universe as the former, but you don’t have to read either for the other to make sense.
What’s Great About Them, You Ask?
A lot of things, I answer, but let’s start with the fact that they’re just plain fun. They’re Urban Fantasy, written in a light style that feels like a snuggly blanket even when there’s some terrifying shit going on.
They take place in an alternate United States where magic has recently returned, and is concentrated in the Detroit Free Zone, or DFZ. The reason for this is more than a bit spoilery, so I shall refrain from revealing it.
The magic system is pretty cool. It’s vaguely like the Force in Star Wars in that it’s all around us, inside us. Unlike the Force, there are different kinds of magic. There’s draconic magic, of course, and thaumaturgy, which requires careful spell craft. There’s shamanic magic which cares less about careful spell craft and more about shoving magic here and there with reckless abandon.
Shamanic magic is more fun.
My favorite aspect of the magic system is how magic creates Mortal Spirits which are godlike incarnations of things and places people think of. There is a spirit of the DFZ who is restrained by the way people think of the DFZ. They think of it as a lawless place, so the Spirit of the DFZ cannot enforce anything but the most basic rules.
As you might guess, this causes problems.
There’s nerd love, which is always adorable. The protagonist of the Heartstrikers series is a dragon who falls in love with an adorable geeky mage and the protagonist of the DFZ series is herself an adorable geeky mage.
They aren’t “just” adorable geeky mages, though. The love interests in both series are more than just love interests. They’re full-fledged partners in getting shit done, and fleshed out just as well as the protagonists.
The plots are slightly intricate, which is to say there are twists and turns, but nothing so absurd it could only happen in reality.
Is That All?
Of course not. There is a lot more depth to these books than you’d glean from a mere description of the characters and plot.
In particular, I’ll call out the third book in the DFZ series as being a scathing critique of cutthroat capitalism. Since the Spirit of the DFZ can’t enforce anything but the most basic rules, the powerful can systematically deprive people of good options to force them into bad choices.
For example, there’s an arena in the depths of the DFZ that stages a “bumfight” where 100 poverty-stricken and unhoused people are let loose in the arena to fight to the death. They’re promised riches, of course, but only if they’re the last one standing. It is portrayed as the atrocity it is, but since all the participants technically entered willingly, the Spirit of the DFZ can’t do anything about it.
The protagonists of the series aren’t simply interested in winning, they’re interested in winning by being good people. As you might imagine, that makes life for our protagonists harder, but they never take the easy way out.
I am convinced that at some point, Rachel Aaron decided to write books that would have a positive impact on the world. It is not enough for her to write something entertaining, or that will sell. She writes about people who are trying to make the world suck less because she’s hoping her books will make the world suck less.
I have seen several examples of this kind of book around lately, and I think of it as a separate sub-genre of every genre. I call it Humanist Fiction, and I hope to see more and more of it.