Battle Dragons: City of Thieves is basically a Fusion of How to Train Your Dragon and Blade Runner

I’ve known about Alex London’s Battle Dragons franchise since it was new. However, because of the ruthless march of time, I’ve only just gotten around to checking it out. I mean, it’s a cyberpunk with dragons. I know I’ve been disappointed before, but something like this—knock on wood—can’t possibly be crap! Well, let’s FINALLY read the first installment, City of Thieves, and confirm my wild claim. Hopefully.

In City of Thieves, a boy named Abel stays up late to watch the custodial dragons burn some trash. Instead, he sees his older sister parkour her way into his room, where she subsequently gives him a mysterious address and a secret to keep. Apparently, she’s a dragon thief, wanted by gangs and the secret police. Better yet, when Abel checks out this address, he finds—surprise, surprise—a rare dragon, smack dab in the middle of Thunder Wings territory. He is now forced to become its rider and fight illegal battles for the Thunder Wings.

Let’s address the elephant, or rather, dragon in the room: the worldbuilding in this series is actually kind of awesome. I’ve seen so many cases where a cool idea falls flat, and thankfully, this isn’t one of those times. Dragons are everything in the city of Drakopolis, including in the aforementioned illegal battles. Also, like in any cyberpunk works, gangs like the aforementioned Thunder Wings run the city. They aren’t even subtle about it; people in public jobs are openly showing their gangster imagery. Even Abel’s teacher is in a gang!

However, I don’t know what is with American literature in particular, or maybe it’s seriously bad luck on my part, but… well… London’s execution is—surprise, surprise—as aggressively safe as it could possibly be. City of Thieves has a mind-numbingly simple plot, and next to no battles, despite the series’ title. This sucks, since the worldbuilding is so well thought out.

I suppose the “risk” comes with some of the twists that come up. However, can you even call them twists? The story is framed to make you think everyone is a criminal, so when these twists happen, it feels more ridiculous than a case of “Wow! Moral ambiguity!” You might as well throw in one of Team Rocket’s famous disguises while you’re at it.

The story would’ve likely been better if Abel wasn’t the main character. He simply isn’t ABEL to do much of anything, and yet he’s the chosen one of the dragon Lina stole, explained simply as “it loves her so much that it loves her blood relative too.” I was spoiled when looking the book up on Goodreads that Abel has AD-HD (since Goodreaders cannot shut up about representation these days), which is something that is not overtly mentioned in the story. I don’t really know how much that justifies his stupid actions, but I do know that a kid with AD-HD once saved the Greek gods, so… it’s only so much of an excuse. Honestly, what really set me off about him above all else is that he never gets that everyone is a criminal.

This includes his best friend, Roa. In the first of many telegraphed betrayals, Roa reveals themself as a Thunder Wings member. However, it really doesn’t mean crap in the long run. They are still smart, supportive, and a much more capable human being than Abel. The aforementioned gangster teacher, Ally, is probably one of the best characters, but she doesn’t get enough screentime. Even Abel’s mom gets to show that she’s a better character than he is. His older brother, Silas the police officer, is… kind of unremarkable. He’s a one-dimensional stuck-up older sibling, and there’s a plot twist with him that’s so obvious that I legitimately thought it was something that had been established in the opening chapter. 

To be honest, Lina should’ve been the main protagonist. She’s cool, knows parkour, and gets to see so much more of the criminal underworld that readers probably want to see than Abel. London could’ve taken some real risks with her, since she would’ve made a great anti-hero. 

I sure bashed City of Thieves a lot, but it isn’t bad. It’s just, like a lot of American novels I’ve read, safe. The writing is good; it describes stuff well enough, there’s great humor, and the few battles that happen (all two of them) get pretty intense. The book is just not cyberpunk-y enough.

~~~~~

Final Verdict: 8.5/10

The first book of Battle Dragons is better than I expected, but still not particularly amazing. I’ll probably read the sequel, since the books are short, and light novels eat wallets for breakfast. At least it’s not as pretentious as other cyberpunks. That’s something, right?

The Dragon Prince is as Epic as it is Choppy (First Impressions, Seasons 1-3)

I’ve been using the extra free-time from COVID-19 to watch some TV shows for the first time in my life. I just finished watching stuff like Avatar: The Last Airbender and Steven Universe, and those had some pretty emotional baggage. I’m caught up to DuckTales, and I needed something “dumb and fun” to watch after the tumultuousness of Steven. So, I turned to the first and last Netflix Original I’ll ever watch, The Dragon Prince. Made by some of the original creators of Avatar, I hoped that it would be as dumb and fun as I wanted it to be (for the record, it’s apparently really popular but I only heard of it when Netflix recommended it to me after I started Avatar. Hooray for my patented living-under-a-rock powers!). I thought I had watched 75% percent of the show after the first three seasons; but apparently, there’s going to be seven. So, let’s see if the show is worth the big investment.

The Dragon Prince starts out with a truly draconic exposition dump. Basically, there was this land of Xadia that had all this cool magic and stuff. But once one single person discovered evil dark magic, the elves took it out on the ENTIRE human race and forced them to move west. A powerful dragon named Thunder guarded the border, but everything changed when the Human Nation attacked (had to; it’s supposed to be comparable to Avatar). They used dark magic to slay Thunder, and killed his little egg bearing his heir, the Dragon Prince. War between the two halves of the world was just a shot away.

In the present day, we have two princes who live in a fancy schmancy palace by the name of Callum and Ezran. Life is all well and good, but everything changed when the Moonshadow Elf Nation attacked. So, they get sent away for their own protection. Meanwhile, an Elf girl named Rayla whiffs the chance to kill a human and now all of her friends hate her. The three kids inevitably cross paths, and it is revealed that the Dragon Prince is miraculously still alive. I guess we’re hoofing it to Xadia, then!

Before we can discuss the content of the narrative, this is one of those shows where it’s important to discuss the visuals first. The Dragon Prince is a fully CG show, similar to RWBY, and that tends to put off a large number of people. As the first show of this type that I watched, I found it to be pretty tolerable. The backgrounds appear to be fully hand-painted, like with Avatar, and the lighting and particle effects really help the world pop. The real issue is the character design. They have a cel-shaded style that doesn’t look all that bad, but for some reason, everyone moves at a very choppy and inconsistent framerate. I imagine this must be a stylistic choice, since I figured Netflix being rich enough to allow for models to move at 60 fps (also the fact that most modeling software these days function at that rate as well). But regardless, it’s definitely better to look at than most CG I’ve seen in anime and stuff.

So, I wanted The Dragon Prince to be dumb and fun, and boy, did I get what I wished for! This show is a kind of adventure fantasy that just isn’t common enough these days; too many of them are busy being political, dark, brooding, and in a lot of cases, ripping off Harry Potter. But nope, The Dragon Prince is a good ol’, “ragtag team of kids against the world” kind of fantasy, just like Avatar, except with a more modern sense of humor. There are some politics, but it’s incredibly clear-cut as to what the correct solution is, and it’s very explicit as far as which figures are smart and which are manipulable idiots.

However, just because The Dragon Prince is both dumb and fun, that doesn’t mean the latter is enough to justify the former for some people. While I am enjoying the show a lot thus far, the story is simplistic on a near child-like level. While it does try to be morally ambiguous by having the war be kind of the fault of both races, individual characters’ moral structures are written all over their sleeves. They don’t even try to hide the evilness of The Dragon Prince’s main antagonist, which is definitely a turn-off to those who like those layer-caked villains. The show can also be hard to take seriously even when it tries to be serious. In fact, the episode loading screen on Netlflix shows a screenshot of the fully hatched Dragon Prince, which spoils that he survives almost dying of hypothermia at the end of season one.

I’ll at least give them some slack for even remotely original worldbuilding. Instead of the tired Four Good Ol’ Elements, the world of The Dragon Prince comes packed with the Six Primal Sources, such as the Moon and the Stars. But functionally, they really aren’t that much different from the same elements of Avatar. It’s similar to how Trails of Cold Steel calls dark magic “Time Magic” and stuff. Look, don’t expect super originality from this thing, okay?

Especially not the cast. The leading male protagonist, Callum, would be unremarkable if it didn’t sound like he was voiced by the voice actor of Sokka from Avatar (he even makes the same wry comments as Sokka at times). He’s the stepson of the king, which would normally make him the victim of many a bully, but the issue seems to have next to no plot relevance; I can at least be thankful that they didn’t paint by numbers THAT much. Meanwhile, his stepbrother, Ezran, is- despite being the youngest- the moral support of the trio. Whenever drama unfolds in the group, he makes things right, almost in an overly convenient, Steven Universe kind of way. Furthermore, Ezran gets some genuine growth starting in the third season.

The female lead is the elf, Rayla. She’s a typical tomboy, but she’s also a bit of Mary Sue, since her first revealed trait is the inability to take a life. She’s also tsundere to the max, and it’s almost too obvious that she and Callum are going to be lovers. But despite how brooding she can be, she has some cute interactions with the boys all the same.

But I don’t like the entire crew. My least favorite characters are the animals that tag along: Bait and Zim, the latter of which is titular Dragon Prince who is not at all named after a cult classic cartoon from the early 2000s. Bait is very inconsistent; he’s useful, thanks to his flash ability, but he also tends to be the direct cause of some conflicts. Zim is just ADORABLE, and I do not like him because of that. I can imagine that both of these characters have toys based off of them in shopping malls everywhere. And to top it all off, Bait and Zim sometimes engage in a shipping war over Ezran.

The main antagonist is a geezer named Verin, the king’s royal advisor. Spoiler alert, the royal advisor is a bad man! Never seen THAT before! Fortunately, he is actually pretty interesting, because all of the evil things he’s doing are out of an obsessive devotion to the kingdom, and he genuinely thinks it’s good. I do have some kind of theory about him that has not yet been confirmed, but if I’m correct, his whole character arc could be undermined and he’ll become a typical one dimensional villain.

Other antagonists include Verin’s kids, Sorin and Claudia. They aren’t inherently evil, but they are both very stupid, and end up being easily coerced into following the princes and “accidentally letting them die” without even knowing that it’s a bad thing. But despite their stupidity (or rather, because of it), they have some great spats with each other, which provides some of the best humor in the series, and plus, they are genuinely good kids at heart. Sometimes, I enjoy their scenes more than the main group’s. The second season also introduces an incredibly sexy villain named Aaravos, but there’s not much known about him at this time.

~~~~~

Current Verdict: 8.65/10

I know, I know… I just scored The Dragon Prince .15 points more than Avatar. I’m sorry. I know that Avatar is definitely a better crafted fantasy epic, yet this show was more fun to watch for whatever reason. It has its flaws, but it’s definitely shaping up to be something great. I recommend it to any fantasy fans (unless you like the dark and brooding stuff, in which case, stay the heck away from this show).