City of Thieves (Battle Dragons #1), by Alex London (Scholastic, September 2021), is a rip-roaring start to a new middle grade fantasy/sci fi series that is sure to be a hit with young readers (and enjoyed by less young ones too).
Alec’s home, and the only place he’s ever lived, let alone visited, is Drakoplis, a futuristic city of skyscrappers, tech, and….dragons. The dragons are an essential part of the city–the many species of dragons have been harnessed to work as transport and in industry. The dragons are also central to the gang life of the city, and the dragon duels between the gangs are the stuff of legend.
Alec’s family is not doing great–though his big brother Silas is a member of the Dragon Riders (the police/protectors/enforcers of Drakopolis), his father has a chronic debilitating condition (scaly lung) and his mother’s job in a dragon food plant doesn’t bring much in. His sister Lina works at a cafe to bring in a little bit for the family. Alec has failed the entrance exam to the Dragon Rider Academy (to his secret relief–heights aren’t his thing) and isn’t at all sure what he will do with his life; in the meantime, there’s school, and hanging out with his best friend Roa (who’s nonbinary) and reading dragon-filled comic books.
But the book starts with none of this background. Instead, we start with Lina creeping home Ninja style, just before the trash incinerating dragons set the night on fire, with a message that will get Alec into more trouble than he could have ever dreamt of. Turns out Lina is a member of one of the clans of dragon gangsters, and she has stolen a dragon from a rival clan. Now she’s on the run. Alec and Roa find the stolen dragon, Karak, a magnificent Sunrise Reaper, and it bonds with him. Now that he’s the one who can ride it, he’s thrown into the middle of the dragon underworld and its web of extortion and violence. His whole family, and his own future, are in danger, and in order to regain some sort of control over his life, he must figure out where his own loyalties lie–family (but who in his family is still loyal to him)? friends (if he can figure out who they are)? city (which the reader increasingly realizes is a dystopia)? or even the dragons themselves (and who knows where their loyalties lie, if they have any)?–while he still has the chance.
There is just tons of action and adventure and layers of danger and intrigue here! Vivid descriptions and great characterization and a nice dollop of relatable adolescent angst and relatable comic book reading make it tremendously easy to imagine the target audience just eating it up.
And on top of that, though there no hammering home of a Message, there’s lots here that will appeal to social justice conscious Gen Z kids, especially the situation of the dragons. It becomes clear that the dragons are enslaved, and some of the language used about them in the stories Alec’s heard bears a really disquieting resemblance to the language used to justify slavery in our own past–“Dragons must be given purpose, the stories said, so they don’t fall to warring again. They must be given jobs and kept busy serving humanity, the stories said, for their own safety.) (page 112 of the ARC). And here’s one justification offered for the battles, in which the dragons have no choice about fighting each other, and are often badly injured or even killed–“These battles give them a chance to be themselves.” (page 128 of the ARC). The ending/beginning point Alec reaches, in which he rejects this dogma, will lift the hearts of these young readers, and leave them (and again, many older reader) desperately anxious for the next book.
(Younger readers are more likely, though, to snicker a bit about the fact that one of the clans is named the “Wind Breakers”….older readers will probably default to light-weigh jackets….)
disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher
NB-City of Thieves is eligible for this year’s Cybils Awards in Elementary/Middle Grade speculative fiction (and hasn’t been nominated yet, although today is only the first day nominations have been open). Here’s where you can go to show Cybils love for your favorite books of the past year (Oct 16, 2020-Oct 15, 2021)