A Critique of the ‘Detroit Free Zone’ series by Rachel Aaron; consisting of ‘Minimum Wage Magic,’ ‘Part-Time Gods’ and ‘Night Shift Dragons’

Spoilers Below! You’ve been warned. Also, all reviews are subjective. My opinions are my own. I’m writing this review as an author critiquing another author’s book, in an attempt to improve my own writing and editing skills.

When I read the first book of this series back in 2019, it was one of my favorite books I read that year. I loved the cyberpunk/shadowrun aesthetic the author used to craft her story, and her prose had a cheerful vitality to it I loved. Additionally I listened to the audiobook, and the narrator knocked the performance out of the park. I always intended to read more by the author, but I’ve been putting it off until today.

This is a three part series, consisting of ‘Minimum Wage Magic,’ ‘Part-Time Gods‘ and ‘Night Shift Dragons.‘ If I were describe the series’ vibe, I’d say that this is a coming of age story about an adorable but slightly schlubby rich girl who’s desperate to escape her wealthy father at all costs. Her father, a dragon, treats her like a prized possession in his draconic hoard, but she has too much self-respect to remain under his thumb. To escape, she runs halfway around the planet from Korea to Detroit, and is now working a minimum wage job cleaning abandoned houses. But getting away from him isn’t that easy; she has to make allies amongst the scum and villainy of Detroit’s oppressed capitalist underclass to strike out on her own- and maybe even find love in the process.

I had fun every moment reading this series. I can think of not one off note in the entire thing. I WILL be reading more by the author.


WHAT IS THE TARGET AUDIENCE?

  • 15+. I read this as an adult, and I can think of no objectionable content. This is an all-ages sort of series.
  • Urban Fantasy
  • DRAGONS!!!
  • Charming, casual prose. Good, clean fun.
  • Shadowrun vibes, but anti-grimdark

READER’S EMOTIONAL RESPONSE/ FUN FACTOR

I am not in this series’ target audience, meaning I am not instinctively inclined to enjoy it. I rarely enjoy urban fantasy, or dragons. HOWEVER, due to a combination of clever plotting and vital prose, I fell in love. This series is just fun. Oddball characters, kooky plots, a great setting.

Overall, I give the story’s Emotional Resonance: (5/5 Stars)

(I default to giving most book 3 stars.)

(5 Stars= Perfect, 4=Great, 3=Good/Average, 2=Fun but Flawed, 1=Not Recommended)


SIMILAR BOOKS

  • Shadowrun. AKA, nearfuture earth with cybernetics and magical creatures likes dragons, dealing with anarochcapitalistic settings.

CONCEPT AND EXECUTION

Restating what I said above, I’d say that this is a coming of age story about an adorable but slightly schlubby rich girl who’s desperate to escape her wealthy father at all costs. Her father, a dragon, treats her like a prized possession in his draconic hoard, but she has too much self-respect to remain under his thumb. To escape, she’s run halfway around the planet from Korea to Detroit, and is now working a minimum wage job cleaning abandoned houses. But getting away from him isn’t that easy; she has to make allies amongst the scum and villainy of Detroit’s oppressed capitalist underclass to strike out on her own- and maybe even find love.

This is a great concept, and the author executed upon it very well.


CHARACTERS AND CHARACTERIZATION:

The protagonist Opal is WAY out of her depth in this series, and I LOVE it. She stumbles from one setback to the next, desperately trying to pay off her school debts, all while dealing with supernatural threats in the form of everything from invisible slugs to upsidedown void universes. Going back to the title of the first book in the series, she has to hold down a minimum wage job cleaning up abandoned apartments and buildings in anarchocapitalist Detroit to make ends meet. Her life is very hard, but she can leave that hardship at any moment if only she’s willing to return to her (extremely) rich family. The problem is that she went to Detroit in the first place to escape her controlling family- in particular her dragon father.

Opal’s complicated relationship with her father is the entire point of this series. Growing up she adored him, until she realized he viewed her as a pet. When she tried to escape him, he did everything in his power to keep her under his control. She fled Seoul to Detroit, abandoning all her father’s wealth and power, and got a minimum wage job being a cleaner just to get by. The series begins with her father tracking her down and making a deal with Opal: Opal must repay her father her college debts in a year’s time. If she does, her father will stop trying to control her. If she doesn’t, Opal must return to Korea to be his puppet for the rest of her life.

MAJOR SPOILER TIME!

Over the course of the trilogy, Opal’s parents are recurring antagonists. I really enjoyed Opal’s love-hate relationship in them. I especially enjoyed how in book 3 her domineering father actually became a main character and we got a lot of time with him. We got to see the world from his perspective, and he got to see the world from his daughter’s perspective. He received character growth, and became a better parent. That’s good work by the author, because it felt authentic to his characterization

I enjoyed the side characters, from Sybel to Niko to the DFZ herself. I listened to the audiobook, and I have to say that the narrator did a FANTASTIC job. All of the characters had distinct voices, with each being brought to life in a vital, vibrant way. I am 100% certain that the audiobook format is better than ebook/paper formats for this reason alone. (Not that those other formats are bad! It’s just that the performance here is just so good.)


PACING AND STRUCTURE

I personally felt that these books were well paced. The author took her time to explore a world and characters where needed, but at the same time occasionally picked up the pace to include fight scenes and magic where needed. It never felt too slow or too fast for me. HOWEVER, I enjoyed the books. Someone who enjoys the books less than me would probably have a different opinion as to whether they are fast paced or not. This sort of thing is very subjective.


PLOT, STAKES AND TENSION

SPOILERS!

If I will ‘criticize’ one thing about this series, I’ll say that books 2&3 felt attached at the hip together. Book 1 is a standalone, but books 2 & 3 must be read in sequence for full impact. Book 2 doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, but it is very obvious that book 3 is meant to begin shortly thereafter. (That’s why I held off on reviewing book 2 until I finished book 3.)

Book 1’s plot introduces the setting and characters very well. We see Opal and Niko in their ‘natural habitat,’ being DFZ cleaners. They are in on the ground level of the DFZ’s criminal underbelly, trying to find a hidden fortune.

Book 2’s plot was all about the protagonists trying to break the curse Opal’s father placed upon Opal in his attempt to force her to return home. I LOVED the twist of how how Opal and Niko outwitted the curse by triggering an ‘unstoppable force meets an immovable object’ scenario, where they forced the unbreakable curse to fight with the international commodities market for gold. This trick felt very ‘anarchocapitalist,’ fitting with the setting/themes of the book.

Book 3’s plot was all about healing the relationship between Opal and her dad after their relationship was destroyed at the end of book 2 by Opal’s trick with the gold market. The whole point of the series in the first two books was establishing that Opal wants to be free of her dad, almost to the point of hating him, while he loves her to the point of being oppressive. I loved how then in book 3 how she not only gets her freedom from her dad but at the same time restores her relationship with him. They become a caring family again.

Books 1 & 2 set up the plot of book 3 in an unexpected way. By establishing their broken relationship in the first books, fixing their relationship in the third book was both unexpected and wholesome. I adored the fact that the villain from the first two books had to be the protagonist’s unwilling henchman in book 3, and they were learn to love one another again.

The books had good stakes and tension. I was invested in the stakes of Opal earning her freedom from her control-freak dad for the first two books, then in the third book I was invested in the stakes of Opal+Dad saving Niko’s life.

NOTE: I felt that this series needed a few POV scenes from non-Opal characters. I think Niko needed a few chapters here and there to really flesh him out.


AUTHORIAL VOICE (TONE, PROSE AND THEME)

I loved the author’s voice in this. I’m not sure how much of my enjoyment is due to the author’s skill with the pen and how much is due to the audiobook narrator ‘clicking’ with the work so well, but I loved how alive the prose felt. Detroit is a scummy, lived in, despicable city with HUGE wealth gaps between rich and poor. And yet Detroit’s home to love and beauty, hidden under the grime and sediment of the moving city. Sure, that ‘beauty’ might be a bit second hand, and the ‘love’ needs to be polished up and duct-taped back together, but it’s still love and beauty. The prose made this series feel alive and joyful, despite the darkness.

This series is about a (vaguely inept) girl trying to leave home, but her empty-nester parents refusing to let her go. This book’s theme is about love, growth, change, the passage of life- but most importantly, respect. Opal loves her parents, and they love her in return- but love isn’t enough. Opal needs respect- which her parents have never given her. That’s what she’s fled.

Same goes for Niko; he left the Gamesman’s employ because he was not respected as a person, but instead treated as a ‘thing.’ In the end of book 3, Opal’s dad learns to respect Opal, and as a result he survives the final battle against the Gamesman; meanwhile Niko’s dad the Gamesman fails to learn respect for Niko, and he dies as a result.


SETTING, WORLDBUILDING AND ORIGINALITY

I’ve played a few of the Shadowrun video games which came out a few years back. In particular, this series reminded me of ‘Shadowrun: Dragonfall,’ but told from the perspective of a down-on-her-luck everywoman who is just trying to get by one day at a time on her own merit. There are no street samurai, no industrial sabotage: this is the daily life of normal people doing normal things in a magical city. What drama which does exist are the problems of the civil servants of said magical city, like (magically) clogged sewers or people illegally burning (supernatural) trash. Weird drama, but low key.

I really enjoyed how ‘normal’ this series felt. Now to be clear, nothing in this series is normal. The protagonist has magic; she’s dating a guy who is more cyberwear than non-cyberware; her dad is literally a dragon. This is an urban fantasy setting which takes itself seriously, but not too seriously.


AUDIOBOOK NOTES

As I stated above, I loved the audiobook. The narrator did an excellent job bringing everything to life.


LESSONS LEARNED

  • I’m a sucker for books with joy and vitality despite the darkness they are set against. Hope in hopeless circumstances.
  • Have a very good audiobook narration.
  • Let all your characters have distinct personalities; cheerful, despondent, stoic, reticent, determined…
    • Let their personalities leak through into their dialog, so you can always tell who’s speaking by their speech patterns
    • And let your characters change! Let them sometimes be the opposite of their core personality. If they are usually happy, let them sometimes be depressed as the plot demands.
  • Let your villains have character arcs. And even let them become heroes.

SUMMARY

Good books are good. This series is a fun and touching story which I’ll remember for the rest of my life. It’s not ‘high art’ (whatever that is), but it is ‘fun art.’ I can only hope I’m half as skilled an author as this one day.


Goodreads

Goodreads

Goodreads

Previous books by the author/in the series I’ve reviewed:


Did you like this critique/review? Here are some more:

  1. P. Djeli Clark Quad Review
  2. A Critique of ‘The Lost War’ by Justin Lee Anderson
  3. A Critique of ‘Vespertine’ by Margaret Rogerson
  4. A Critique of ‘The Burning God’ and ‘The Poppy War’ Trilogy by R. F. Kuang
  5. A Critique of ‘Gunmetal Gods’ by Zamil Akhtar

And The Rest of My In Depth Reviews

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