The Politics of Care: Review of After the Dragons by Cynthia Zhang
Leah Rachel von Essen
After the Dragons. By Cynthia Zhang. Stelliform Press, August 19, 2021.
It’s more than okay for fantasy to be soft. For the same reasons that, in the midst of a pandemic, we fell in love with quiet games like Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing, books like After the Dragons are valuable. I wish we had more soft fantasy to usher us through this time. Not all fantasy must have high stakes with complicated political intrigue. Sometimes, we read just to escape—we write just to create a new world.
But it would be a mistake to assume that this “low stakes” fantasy is apolitical. Ursula K. Le Guin once wrote about escapism: “The moneylenders, the know nothings, the authoritarians have us all in prison; if we value the freedom of the mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can.”
Escapism, soft fantasy, soft romance: none of these are apolitical, and neither is After the Dragons. Cynthia Zhang’s novel is a story about care and how we care for one another, and while it is quiet, it is deeply informed by the ways that communities care for each other.
In an overheated fantasy Beijing, droughts, pollution, and human cruelty haunt the aquatic dragon population. Kaifei is a jaded local college student struggling with shaolong, “burnt lung,” a pollution-created disease that plagues the city’s inhabitants. He pours all his remaining energy and resources into saving abandoned and hurting dragons, and rehabilitating them back to good health. Eli is a biracial American medical researcher recently relocated to Beijing, feeling lost and uncertain as he works in the city where his grandmother died of shaolong. When Eli stumbles onto Kai, developing a slow and blushing but powerful crush, he feels an instinctive need to support and care for him, but Kai refuses his help.
At its core, the book is about how we care for each other—on both personal and community levels—and how we fail to care for each other: how we fail to care for the climate, animals, or our own people. People adopt dragons as exotic pets only to abandon them when their water bills skyrocket during the drought. Kai lives without air conditioning in a world of rising temperatures as, just blocks away, newly-built condos sit empty and unused.
Kai insists continually that we can never do enough. He often feels like he’s drowning in the impossibility of his quest to save the dragons. Even as he fights, he also feels a hopelessness under it all, a fearful cynicism that everything he can do before he dies is just a drop in an ocean, incapable of making real change. Eli is naively positive at the beginning, innocent, determined that he can do it all, that he can save everyone he meets. He looks past the larger structural issues because he wants to believe that he can personally fix it all—he thinks that Kai is resistant to change, and fails to see the ways that a savior complex is keeping him from seeing the more insidious issues at work.
But in their slow cycle towards each other, their quiet romance, Kai and Eli learn that the ideal is a balance between them. We cannot save everyone; but we can try to save some of Eli takes a clear look at why he’s trying to help Kai, and the realities of what they might be able to do together. Kai realizes honesty is key, even when it’s accompanied by pain, and opens himself up to the painful hope that they might be able to make a difference, even if it’s small.
It’s the perfect novel for this moment. It’s comforting, and hopeful. But it also urges us to look at things frankly. Nothing is perfect, or normal, right now: we must be honest as we look at our world, in this moment of time. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be trying, even as individuals, to quietly make it better, to the extent of our abilities, as long as we aren’t destroying our own bodies in the process. As long as we are honest, clear-eyed, about what we face and what we can actually accomplish, we should try to make a difference. No, two individuals can’t conquer the troubles of the world—but there is nothing wrong with them trying, working, to make a change. We might not be able to change everything, fix everything—but we can try and work hard, and we can make a change even if it’s small.
Too often, people set up a false dichotomy in their discussion of genre fiction: is it escapism, or realist gritty commentary? On first glance, After the Dragons might appear to be a low-stakes escapist novel, but Le Guin taught us that escapism itself is radical, and that the health of our communities and ecosystems is part and parcel of the political landscape. This novel, in its quiet, cozy way, has big implications. As we struggle to escape the COVID-19 pandemic and the trauma it has wrought, it has become increasingly clear that how our communities care for and empathize with its members is one of the most vital issues we must address as a society.
Cynthia Zhang’s debut novel is soft and cozy, but it also calls us out. It reminds us that we have to care for each other, look out for each other, and to be sure that work is accompanied by empathy and a good faith attempt to see the ways that privilege and structural issues are coloring the injustices to be addressed. After the Dragons is a soft place to rest, but laid on a solid foundation of a quietly radical concept.
Leah Rachel von Essen is an editor, writer, and book reviewer, whose specialties include books in translation, genre-bending and surrealist fiction, and feminist speculative fiction. In addition to her work as Senior Contributor at Book Riot and book reviewer for Booklist, Leah works full-time as Editor-in-Chief of Chicago Booth Magazine at the University of Chicago. She also runs the blog While Reading and Walking, sharing her book recommendations and thoughts on mental health, local bookstores and events, and travel. She lives on the South Side of Chicago with her cat, Ms. Nellie Bly. Find her online on Twitter and Instagram.
This review was commissioned by editor Casella Brookins from a direct pitch to the reviewer in May 2021; the editor and reviewer were previously acquainted through book blogging and podcasting connections. No review copy was arranged by ARB.