Review: After the Dragons by Cynthia Zhang

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ARC received from the publisher (Stelliform Press) in exchange for an honest review.

Now this was a breath of fresh air. Barely over novella length and set in near future Beijing plagued by pollution where water is strictly rationed, it’s at the same time deeply melancholic, sweet, and kind. I loved it. I requested this more or less on a whim after Christine @ Black Forest Basilisks recommended it to me and I have no regrets.

(Also, if you need any more convincing, there are dragons and it’s gay.)

Kai spends most of his time rescuing and caring for abandoned dragons. He has also recently been diagnosed with shaolong or “burnt lung,” a terminal somewhat tuberculosis-like illness suspected to have been brought on by pollution. Eli has come to Beijing from America for the sake of medical research, but also because of his Chinese grandma who died of shaolong some time ago.

It’s a fairly quiet, slice of life kind of story, mostly focused on the two main characters interacting, their partnership and romance, the conflict between their personalities. Kai is fiercely independent to the point of self-destructiveness – his reaction to his diagnosis was to cut himself off from his family and his friends because he couldn’t face their pity. Eli only wants to help. It can be intensely frustrating to read, but I didn’t mind much. It’s a fascinating character study.

The worldbuilding is different than I’m used to – I don’t read climate fiction, as I find it too depressing in most cases, but combined with a very calm plot like this, it worked well. (I wish this book was around last year when Climate was one of the r/fantasy Bingo squares!) Apart from climate issues and dealing with terminal illness, the book also briefly touches upon the racism Eli faces for being mixed race, both in China and at home. The heavy themes are balanced by overall kindness of the characters and people doing their best when faced with tough circumstances. I also liked the many, many types of (Eastern) dragons.

The ending is of the open, literary type, with not much getting resolved – rationally, I do understand that it’s very fitting for this type of story, but emotionally I wanted a little more. Still, it’s a book I would absolutely recommend.

Enjoyment: 4/5
Execution: 4.5/5

Recommended to: those who like climate SFF, slice of life, dragons, or character studies
Not recommended to: those who dislike open, mostly unresolved endings and realistically frustrating characters

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