Dragons were fire and terror to the Western world, but in the East they brought life-giving rain…
Now, no longer hailed as gods and struggling in the overheated pollution of Beijing, only the Eastern dragons survive. As drought plagues the aquatic creatures, a mysterious disease—shaolong, or “burnt lung”—afflicts the city’s human inhabitants.
Jaded college student Xiang Kaifei scours Beijing streets for abandoned dragons, distracting himself from his diagnosis. Elijah Ahmed, a biracial American medical researcher, is drawn to Beijing by the memory of his grandmother and her death by shaolong. Interest in Beijing’s dragons leads Kai and Eli into an unlikely partnership. With the resources of Kai’s dragon rescue and Eli’s immunology research, can the pair find a cure for shaolong and safety for the dragons? Eli and Kai must confront old ghosts and hard truths if there is any hope for themselves or the dragons they love.
In the not-too-distant future, a deadly disease caused by pollution and exacerbated by the worsening climate crisis is spreading through Beijing. Kai, a closeted college dropout, has resigned himself to a slow and painful death from shaolong. He plans on spending what’s left of his time on earth rescuing stray dragons that have been abandoned and abused in the city. Dragons, once revered and respected, became prized pets of the wealthy before they were discarded as useless luxuries. Kai works for a dragon pet store that doubles as a dragon fighting ring, which is how he meets Eli.
Eli’s mother is Chinese and his father is Black. Raised, in America, Eli has a diasporic relationship with China. After his grandmother dies alone in Beijing of shaolong, he takes a pilgrimage to his ancestral homeland by getting an internship at a lab studying dragons. As the boys connection grows deeper, it becomes harder for Eli to accept Kai’s death sentence and for Kai to accept Eli’s desire to help.
I think what I liked most about this short novel was how quiet it was. This is a story about two young men figuring out who they are and what they want. There is no big dramatic action or explosive finale. Cynthia Zhang includes several scenes where they chat about life while watching dragons fly. But don’t let the softness make you think there’s no depth to the story. Zhang fills every conversation with layers of subtext and context. It’s also really well written, with strong worldbuilding and compelling character development.
After the Dragons is a little bit science fiction, a little bit fantasy, and all lovely. Come for the dragons, stay for the queer romance.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy.