A dragon flying across the water from the cover of The Dragonet Prophecy.

I always ask my editing clients if there are any stories that have inspired them. Several have mentioned wanting to craft a world like that found in Wings of Fire, Tui T. Sutherland’s middle-grade series about dragons. It’s got 15 primary novels, two supplementary novels, several short stories, and an ongoing graphic novel adaptation. You might say it’s a big deal. 

Clearly, I needed to see what all the hubbub was about, so I cracked open the first quintology, The Dragonet Prophecy. These books tell the story of five young dragons (called dragonets) who’ve been raised far away from their people in an isolated cave. The plot is about stopping a devastating war, while the world is dragons, dragons, and more dragons.

The Good

An underwater dragon from the cover of The Lost Heir.

The Dragonet Prophecy won’t ever be mistaken for the elaborate worldbuilding of The Broken Earth or Lord of the Rings, and that’s not a bad thing. Partly, that’s because it’s aimed at readers aged 8–12, who may not be interested in memorizing 12 different royal family trees. But adult readers also enjoy a light read, and Sutherland delivers with a world that’s refreshingly uncomplicated. There are seven dragon kingdoms, they all have queens,* and most of them are at war. That’s about all you need to know; everything else is extra. 

Distinct Dragon Factions

If there’s one thing audiences everywhere love, it’s a story with multiple factions that we can sort ourselves into. The more distinct those factions, the better, particularly with powers and aesthetics. If the factions look different and do different things, we can invest in one and identify with it for the rest of the series. It’s all the fun of star signs and personality quizzes, but with a slightly lower chance of running into people who take it way too seriously. 

Sutherland delivers the faction-identity experience through the different dragon kingdoms, and, yes, there are online quizzes to find out what kind of dragon you are. These dragons are distinct in three major categories: environment, powers, and appearance.* SandWings live in the desert, have a poisonous tail, and sport scales in yellow and gold, often with some snake patterning thrown in. IceWings live in the frozen north, have ice breath, and their scales are white and blue. You get the picture. 

Each of the five protagonists is from a different kingdom, and while that leaves two types of dragons unrepresented, it’s still plenty to get the imagination going. While this strategy is especially prevalent in stories aimed at kids, I hope it’s clear by now that grownups also love identifying with in-universe factions. That’s why I’m a light-side waterbender who works in Starfleet’s science division

A Vulnerable Inheritance System  

In Wings of Fire, dragon queenship is passed through combat. The reigning queen’s sister, daughter, or niece issues a challenge, and the queen decides whether to fight or stand aside. Normally, I roll my eyes at this kind of system, as it just doesn’t seem tenable.

However, the system fits pretty well in this world. Dragons live a long time, and if they ever die of old age, I don’t think we hear about it. It’s also unlikely that a queen would die in an accident, and dragons don’t seem to get sick. Challenges might be the only reliable way to get someone new on the throne

But what I really like about this system is that it has a serious weak spot: if the queen does die from something other than a challenge fight, who’s the next queen? If she only had one female relative, that’s fine, but what if there’s more than one claimant? This is rare enough that it’s believable for dragons to overlook it, but it’s still clearly something that could happen. In fact, such a scenario is exactly what started the big war our heroes are trying to stop. 


While all the major characters in this quintology are dragons, the world also has humans in it! The dragons call them “scavengers” on account of how humans are always trying to steal dragon treasure, which is a fun play on classic D&D tropes. Naturally, there’s a big debate among dragon scholars on whether humans are intelligent or simply another kind of prey. 

Even in the most imaginative spec fic, most protagonists are human, so it’s fun to switch up the perspective. To our draconic heroes, humans are strange things indeed: tiny, but much braver than any other animal. They’re also one of the only things that can threaten a dragon besides another dragon, though that requires a group of humans. 

I also enjoy that despite interacting with several humans over the first five books, our heroes never learn the humans’ language or find a magical translator. This emphasizes how alien humans are to dragons, though it also leads to a couple of scenes where the characters communicate questionably complex ideas through miming and charades.  

Unconventional Family Structure

Despite hatching from eggs and growing to adulthood in seven or eight years,* most dragons have conventional family structures, at least by North American human standards. Dragonets are raised by their two genetic parents, usually their mother and father.* However, two tribes notably buck this trend: the NightWings and the MudWings.

The NightWings practice communal child-rearing. Instead of individual families, dragonets are all raised together by the kingdom as a whole. Parents may have affection for their offspring, or they might be entirely indifferent. At first, I was worried that this method would be demonized because NightWings are the evil kingdom, but its presentation is actually quite neutral. It might even be positive, considering how 99% of parents are unreservedly terrible in this world. 

Even more interesting is the MudWing practice. These dragons lay their clutch of eggs in a warm nest and then just leave the eggs to their own devices, other than keeping the occasional alligator away. Instead of being raised by their parents, a MudWing’s main family connection is with their siblings. Each clutch forms a tight-knit group that does everything together, from partying to fighting battles. 

Mostly this is just neat, but there’s a subtle bit of message reinforcement too. Since sibling groups don’t increase their numbers with children, any deaths are a permanent loss. This means that warfare inexorably degrades MudWing communities until they can’t function anymore. I don’t know if that was intentional, but it fits really well with the Dragonet Prophecy’s anti-war ideals. 

The Bad

A dragon roaring from the cover art of Dark Secret.

The main downside to Wings of Fire’s worldbuilding isn’t any specific mistake, but that it’s so bare-bones. This is the cost of keeping things light and simple; it feels like there just isn’t much world there to explore. Theoretically, there are ways to have a simple world without it also feeling empty, but few stories manage it. I’m not saying Sutherland was wrong to make this choice, as a lot of storytelling is about give and take, just that there are, in fact, downsides. However, there are still a few specific points that are bad enough on their own to be worth mentioning. 

Uneven Dragon Factions 

In terms of special powers, every dragon starts with flight and firebreath. They may also get the ability to heal faster in their native environment, or it could just be MudWings who do that; the book isn’t clear. Regardless, a dragon’s powers are then modified depending on which kingdom they belong to. See if you can spot the problem based on which dragons get what. 

  • SkyWings: Nothing. 
  • NightWings: Nothing. They claim to have mind reading and prophecy, but it’s a lie.
  • MudWings: Their firebreath doesn’t work if they’re cold, and a small fraction of them are immune to fire. Or maybe their burns heal super fast? Again, it’s not clear.
  • IceWings: Ice breath instead of fire breath, which may or may not be more powerful. 
  • SeaWings: They lose fire breath, but gain swimming, water breathing, darkvision, and light-up patches of scales. 
  • SandWings: A deadly stinger on their tail. 
  • RainWings: Instant death venom spray – the later books retcon how deadly it is, but it still incapacitates a dragon with one hit. They also get color-changing scales that can create near-perfect disguises or make the dragon invisible. 

This power distribution reads like a tier list, with F-ranked SkyWings and NightWings not even worth playing and S-ranked RainWings posing a serious balance problem. MudWings are also pretty sad, while IceWings and SeaWings are a big question mark. It’s unclear whether freezing breath is just reskinned fire breath or if it’s more powerful in some way. The SeaWing grab bag should be very powerful, but none of the SeaWing characters ever use their powers to good effect. The SandWings are left as the only dragon that’s powerful enough to be cool without breaking the story. 

Beyond the obvious problem with giving some of your characters an insta-kill ranged weapon, this imbalance cuts hard into the fun of splitting the dragons into different factions in the first place. Did you like any of the less powerful kingdoms? Too bad, you’re identifying with loser dragons now! 

Dragon Racism 

Don’t worry, Sutherland has a plan to make sure the RainWings don’t completely dominate the other kingdoms. You see, in books one and two, we hear a bunch of horrible stereotypes about RainWings, most prominently that they’re “lazy” and “stupid.” This feels a little random, like Sutherland just spun an oppression wheel and ran with the results, but I’ve seen worse. 

Then in book three, we learn that all those stereotypes are true! The RainWings really are incredibly lazy, and they’re so lacking in smarts that they probably can’t find their tails with all four talons. They’re so passive that they don’t even notice when over a dozen of them disappear without a trace. When the heroes tell them about the disappearance, the RainWing response is to ignore the problem and hope it goes away. 

The main exception to this is protagonist Glory, who Isn’t Like Other RainWingsTM, presumably because she wasn’t raised with them. She was instead raised in a prison cave with a set of abusive guardians, so obviously she turned out way cooler than the rest of her loser kingdom. Oh, she’s also the long-lost heir to the throne, so maybe that’s why she isn’t a total loser. What is going on? 

Over time, we meet a few other RainWings who aren’t passive caricatures, so the idea seems to be that it’s RainWing culture that’s bad rather than RainWing genetics. This isn’t better! The idea of inferior cultures is just as destructive as the ugliest eugenics. 

Everyone’s an Asshole 

While the five main characters have reasonably balanced personalities, nearly every other dragon they meet is either cruel, incompetent, or cruel and incompetent. At first, I thought this was just how Sutherland characterized adult dragons, something that’s fairly common in stories for younger readers. But then we meet other dragonets, and most of them are just as bad. 

Normally, I would just call this bad characterization and move on, but there’s actually dialogue and narration about how dragons are inherently hostile to each other. This is never contradicted, so I think I’m supposed to accept it as truth? That’s certainly how most dragons act. 

Not only does this make the world feel stilted and unpleasant, but it also makes the few cool dragons feel like mistakes. Why are our heroes free of the genetic imperative to be a dick? They were all abused growing up – is that it? No, it can’t be, as none of the other exceptions were abused, at least not that we know of. 

Sutherland also tries to have it both ways, creating several moments where the protagonists find out that other dragons are just like them, full of hopes and dreams! Except we know that’s not true, because most other dragons are terrible.  

Extremely Arbitrary Magic

Each dragon has a specific set of abilities, and other than RainWings, none of them are overpowered. If anything, most of the kingdoms would benefit from a buff. But there is one power that is so story-breakingly strong that I’m still struggling to accept it: animus magic. 

Animus magic can do anything. More specifically, an animus dragon can enchant items to do anything. Here’s a short list of the various magical objects our heroes encounter: 

  • A mirror that can listen to other dragons from afar. 
  • A stone that can visit the dreams of any dragon you’ve met.
  • Wormhole tunnels. 
  • A jewel that picks the best queen and incinerates the other candidates. 
  • A statue that assassinates all dragonets of the SeaWing royal family. 
  • A spear that solves mysteries

This list of powers isn’t comprehensive. If there are any limits on animus magic, Sutherland never establishes them. Instead, the only cost is that using the magic slowly turns a dragon evil. Well, more evil than the dragon default. 

That’s a pretty random drawback, and more importantly, it isn’t enough to prevent a series of dragon-sized plot holes. When the NightWings’ island is damaged by a volcano, they create a wormhole tunnel to the mainland so they can conquer some new territory. Fair enough. Except, from what we see with other magic items, they could have just enchanted a helmet to repair the damage and stop the volcano from erupting. 

This happens again and again. Remember that assassin statue? Its creator was killed in a duel when she could have just enchanted herself to be invincible. The NightWings supposedly have the listening mirror while making their evil plans, but they never use it to spy on their enemies. The whole concept is a mess.    

What We Can Learn

A gold dragon roaring from the cover of The Brightest Night

Both the pros and the cons of Sutherland’s worldbuilding are fairly straightforward, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to learn. If anything, a minimalist world is sometimes the best place to learn, as we can focus on the most important facets without having to consider all the bells and whistles of a more complex world. 

Audiences Want Cool Options

Were I to rate various stories that create cool factions for audiences to identify with, I’d probably put Wings of Fire somewhere in the upper middle. On the one talon, it’s nowhere near as good as the elemental martial arts and nations of Avatar. On the other talon, it’s miles above the wizard school with a cool house, a moderate loser house, a major loser house, and an evil house. 

The distinctive scale colors and patterns are a major plus, and I’d bet dollars to donuts that Sutherland had fanart in mind when designing them. If not, then it was a lucky accident, because there is a lot of fanart for Wings of Fire. Likewise, the different environments help give each kingdom an identity, even if their powers are often out of step. 

This is a great strategy and I strongly encourage other storytellers to give it a try, assuming you have a story that can support multiple factions. You might think this only works with kids, but I assure you that’s not the case. If it were, the Westerosi noble houses wouldn’t be nearly so popular.   

Twist the Familiar to Create Novelty

It seems like most of the novelty in a book like this would come from the main characters being dragons, but that isn’t really the case. A story’s main characters usually need to be relatable, which limits how novel they can be, especially in a book for kids. That’s why the five dragonets act like archetypal American preteens* despite being in a fantasy world that’s 80% dragon by volume. 

This is a reasonable choice on Sutherland’s part, but it means she needs to search for novelty elsewhere. Her two most successful attempts are the MudWings’ family structure and her portrayal of humans. In both cases, Sutherland takes something familiar and presents it in a different light. This is similar to the uncanny effect, except it’s not being used to creep anyone out. 

Twisting the familiar is often easier than creating something entirely new. For one thing, there’s less to explain. Readers already know what humans and families are, so Sutherland only needs to show what’s different about them in her world. Another benefit is that these familiar elements usually create fewer implications than building something from scratch would. 

For example, Sutherland could have written that whenever a dragonet comes of age, a shooting star burns across the sky, predicting some great deed they’ll perform as an adult. That’s pretty novel, but it would also require a lot of explanation, and Sutherland would have to deal with the existence of magic that can call down space rocks based on age. It’s easier to just use something readers already know about. 

Fantasy Racism Is Still Racism 

An unfortunately common refrain when we talk about bigotry in spec fic is that it doesn’t matter because it’s not “real.” The characters are elves, sorcerers, or Vulcans, none of which exist in real life, so why do we need to care about any of it? Wings of Fire is perhaps the best example you could ask for to demonstrate why that line of reasoning is flawed. 

For Glory’s entire life, she’s been abused and cut down on account of being a RainWing. RainWings are all lazy and stupid, the stereotypes say, so Glory must be too. This mistreatment ranges from outright hatred to casual microaggressions, and the way Glory gets through it is by reminding herself that the stereotypes aren’t true, that she isn’t like that. It’s the belief in her people that keeps her going. 

And then she finds out that all the stereotypes are true. RainWings are actually like that, except her by virtue of being a special protagonist. The people who mistreated her were right the whole time. The story doesn’t recognize the full implications of this reveal, but it’s an incredibly ugly thing to do. 

Glory’s experience is hardly different from what a real marginalized human might go through, especially if they were raised isolated from their people. Wings of Fire is saying that that kind of mistreatment could be justified. That’s a horrible message for any book, let alone a children’s book. 

Tortured Worldbuilding Doesn’t Fix Contrived Plots

On a lighter note, let’s talk about how authors prop up their weak plots. Usually, they just have the characters make contrived choices. For example, the Game of Thrones writers wanted Daenerys to burn down King’s Landing, but she had no reason to do that, so they just had her do it anyway. 

But Sutherland doesn’t usually go that route. Instead, she adds worldbuilding elements whenever a plot isn’t working, similar to what Martha Wells does in The Cloud Roads. The RainWing racism is actually part of that. You see, the NightWings have a plan to take over the rainforest, but that obviously won’t work since the RainWings are all ninja venom sprayers. To compensate, Sutherland has the RainWings all be lazy to the point of lacking self-preservation. 

This is also why almost every dragon the heroes meet is an asshole. It’s really hard to justify why five preteen dragons would be the ones to stop a war, but it’s easy if the other dragons are all bloodthirsty and love killing. Never mind that this undercuts the story’s anti-war message – the plot demands it! 

That’s all a drop in the bucket compared to how Sutherland uses animus magic. I lost track of how many plots were resolved by a random enchanted object, including the big finale. How do they stop the war, you might ask? They randomly dig up a magical MacGuffin that picks the dragon they like to be in charge and incinerates the dragon they don’t like. Yay? 

This method can technically make the story do what you want it to, but it’s supremely unsatisfying, and it does long-term damage that’s very difficult to fix. Every time you introduce a random magic effect or weird cultural practice to justify a sticky plot point, you’re stuck with that new element. Worldbuilding is forever, and readers have long memories. It’s almost always easier to fix the plot instead. 

While Sutherland’s worldbuilding isn’t especially bad when compared to the other books I’ve looked at, some of it is oddly contradictory to her stated goals. In particular, the idea that dragons are inherently mean and violent is just weird in an anti-war story. Usually, those focus on the ugliness of war and the lives it destroys, but that kind of sympathy is extremely difficult with Sutherland’s dragons. That’s probably the most important lesson we can take from these books: build for the story you want to tell. If that means you need a more robust justification for your heroes to save the day than “everyone else is an asshole,” so be it.

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