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Literature / DFZ

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"Gonna be one of those jobs, I see."
Opal Yong-ae

Opal Yong-ae is a Cleaner, a freelancer who cleans out empty apartments in the hopes of finding something valuable she is allowed to sell. Facing a mounting debt to a very dangerous individual, she takes a few jobs she shouldn't and finds a dead body in one of the apartments. This leads her to a conspiracy of torture and mayhem, hopefully with a very large payout on the other side.

Because in the Detroit Free Zone, anything is possible—but there is no one to protect you.

Sequel to The Heartstrikers series, the first book, Minimum Wage Magic, was released in November 2018. The second, Part-Time Gods, was released the following year on June 9th. The last book in the series, Night Shift Dragons, was released May 5th 2020.

This series provides examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Opal's parents explicitly see her as their property, despite the fact that they constantly belittle and insult her as not being good enough. Her paternal grandfather was worse, killing all but two of his children himself and passing some serious dysfunction down to the two survivors.
  • The Ace: Opal's mother is good at everything she turns her hand to, which is how she became the Great Yong's consort and First Mortal. Her only flaw is not being a mage.
  • Action Mom: Opal's mother leads a small army to the rescue when she learns that her dragon and their daughter are in danger.
  • Adventure-Friendly World: Toned down from the previous series. The DFZ is still a free city without any regulations on health or magic use, but at least there are some laws. There is a functioning government (the Cleaners technically work for them, albeit as freelancers), some attempt at public safety is made, and murder is actually illegal.
  • An Aesop: The "shortsighted goals lead to short lived victories" aesop from the first series is still present. More front and center, however, is "money can't buy happiness."
    Opal: I want to be rich just as much as you do! That's why I bust my butt as a Cleaner, but I also know that money isn't everything. I know this, because I tried to buy freedom and integrity and love, and I couldn't. But while you can't buy them, you can absolutely sell them. That's why I'm fighting you so hard on this. You're about to sell something that money can't buy.
  • As Long as There Is Evil: The Gameskeeper argues this. "I am a spirit, a true immortal! You can't kill me. So long as humans lust for blood, I'll always rise again!" However, the circumstances of his temporary demise—highly public and the result of losing a fight in his own arena—are likely to keep him down a while.
    Yong: Tell me, God of Champions... what happens when the god of winners loses?
  • Blue-and-Orange Morality:
    • Opal notes several times that spirits don't think like humans; they are dedicated completely to their domains and cannot consider possibilities outside it. The DFZ is better at acting human than most because she is a god of a human city, but even she has her limits—it takes a good amount of effort to talk her around to the idea of giving something away for free, even though she loses nothing on the deal; she is a city of commerce, everything must be paid for.
    • The Gameskeeper, as the God of the Arena, was deeply insulted at the idea of Nik retiring. In his eyes, champions are meant to win until they die; retiring goes against the very purpose of a champion. Likewise, when he reads Opal's soul and sees her entire life, he comes to the absurd conclusion that she'd love to be a champion in his arena, because why else would she keep fighting and winning?
  • Bulletproof Vest:
    • Opal's mother bought her an enchanted poncho that can protect her from basically anything. Opal uses it when Cleaning to protect from diseases, minor magic, and small animals, but it can also survive a bullet. One bullet, and then it needs to be recharged.
    • Nik's coat is a more traditional bulletproof vest. Funnily enough, he rarely needs it, as he himself is bulletproof.
  • Continuity Nod: In Part-Time Gods, Opal observes beautiful Chinese watercolour paintings by an artist whose work she doesn't recognize decorating the walls in the Dragon Consulate and wonders who made them. This might be a nod to the Golden Emperor from the previous series, whose preferred medium was also watercolour.
  • Contrasting Sequel Main Character: The previous protagonist was a dragon who acted too much like a human. Opal is a human who acts a lot like a dragon (despite her denials). She's also a very strong mage, but horrible at thaumaturgy. This turns out to be because she's a natural-born shaman, and she ends up being powerful enough to seriously challenge a Mortal Spirit.
  • Cool Car: Nik's manual sports car, which runs on gasoline and has no onboard AI. Nik insists that it's purely practical (no AI means nothing to get hacked, high performance means he can catch or escape anything he wants), but he gets embarrassed when Opal asks if he named it.
  • Create Your Own Villain: Yong thought his sister White Snake was untrustworthy, and made it clear she'd have no place in Korea under his rule. Everything she's done since then was because she wanted to go home, and was increasingly sure that wouldn't happen while her brother lived.
  • Cybernetics Eat Your Soul: Cyberware interferes with a mage's magic, so most mages choose to go without a prosthetic if they lose a limb. Opal is surprised that Dr. Lyle chose to get one. He used it to hide the coordinates of his ritual.
  • Cyborg: Cyberware is extremely common in the DFZ. Nik has a lot of cyberware, though it's not as obvious as most.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Opal's is relatively tame, but being born under the orders of a dragon means she belongs to him. While she admits her life wasn't horrible, she was still not free, and she's willing to do almost anything to keep away from him.
  • Don't Fear the Reaper: Empty Wind, the Spirit of the Forgotten Dead, is absolutely terrifying, but in the end his job is simply to protect those who have been forgotten and find them justice. When he almost kills Nik for desecrating a corpse, Opal is able to talk him down partly by admitting they should have just gone to him for help in the first place. Nik wonders at one point if Empty Wind is trying to get them to die somewhere they will be forgotten so he can claim their souls; Opal scoffs at this.
  • Genius Loci: The Detroit Free Zone is ruled over by the Spirit of the DFZ herself. She is able to rearrange any part of herself, grow new buildings, and twist roads around like snakes. Government buildings are relatively stable and she always makes sure the Peacemaker's Consulate has clear skies, but other than that everything is fair game. You need a good GPS just to know where your destination is today, let alone how to get there.
  • Gilded Cage: Opal was a Lonely Rich Kid who was given absolutely everything her parents thought she wanted, but never anything she actually wanted.
    Opal: You gave me a handcrafted Steinway baby grand piano for my twelfth birthday. I don't even play!
    Yong: You could have learned.
  • Greater-Scope Villain: In the first book, the Gameskeeper is behind Kauffman and the search for the cockatrices. In the third book, he comes to the fore, revealing that he is the God of the Arena and is trying to usurp the DFZ's control of her city.
  • Good Feels Good: In the end, Nik admits that while he's mad at Opal in the short term for convincing him to give up sixty percent of seven million, he'll feel better in the long term. And that's certainly better than when he normally sells out, where he feels great at first for getting a bunch of money, but soon feels terrible.
  • Immune to Bullets: Nik has a lot of cyberware, to the point that bullets just bounce off him.
  • Magic Versus Science: The contrast between the rigorously studied thaumaturgy and the more traditional shamans is further expanded upon from the previous series. This is further compounded by the first new Merlin being a very outspoken thaumaturge, believing shamans to be unskilled magic users who simply bash them together and thus making the practice almost obsolete. This turns out to be false. Because shamans opt to manipulate magic directly, without circles and spell-works to act as safety nets, skilled shamans are often more careful than their counterparts and have stricter casting practices with much fewer assumptions made about the mage. This also allows for far greater flexibility when it comes to unique problems.
  • Mayfly–December Romance: Yong is a thousand-year-old dragon who's had several human consorts over his long life.
  • Meaningful Name: An opal is "a pretty gem of little value," hinting at how her parents are more interested in her for appearances than anything else. Her family name means "dragon's love," making the twist blatantly obvious if you speak Korean.
  • Physical God: The DFZ is uniquely both the Spirit of the DFZ and the spirit of the physical city. This makes her an interesting intersection of spirit types; apparently many papers have been written on the subject.
  • The Precious, Precious Car: Nik's high-end sports car. Some of his old friends are surprised that he let Opal ride in it at all.
  • Pride:
    • Opal's father refuses to let her go for no reason than because she belongs to him. Losing her would be an insult. She is also the only person he owns who doesn't love and adore him, which makes him angry.
    • Highlighting their similar nature, Opal has the same problem. She keeps bashing herself against the brick wall that is her father because she is insulted by the way he tries to take care of her like a pet. While Opal is more justified than Yong, it's still repeatedly made clear that she makes a lot of her problems worse by refusing to accept defeat in anything. This all comes to a head in the final book, when she refers to Yong and Nik as her "treasures" in the same way that Yong would.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure:
    • Empty Wind, the Spirit of the Forgotten Dead, helps Opal and Nik once Opal explains the situation to him. She apologizes for not just asking for his help in the first place.
    • The Peacemaker, the Dragon of Detroit, is one of the few real authority figures in the DFZ. He has a list of banned substances and items; while they're not technically illegal, no one will go against the Peacemaker by trading them. Much of the plot kicks off because cockatrices are on his list, and Dr. Lyle invented a ritual to make cockatrice eggs. In the end, Opal calls the Peacemaker to save the cockatrice chicks.
  • Skeleton Key: Cleaners receive a key from the DFZ herself that will open any lock in the city so long as they have a right to be there. Normally that means buying the apartment, but occasionally they will accidentally buy an apartment that isn't actually legal (such as if the resident paid their rent through a magical contract with the city, which doesn't show up on paperwork), and they won't be able to get in. They don't get a refund if that happens.
  • Spanner in the Works: Dr. Lyle's accidental death screwed up everyone's plans. It of course screwed up Lyle's plans to lay low until the time was right, but it also screwed up his employer's plans to capture him and torture him for the ritual site. In fact, they spend most of the book under the mistaken impression that he is still alive, screwing themselves over several times as they make decisions based on that assumption.
  • Undying Loyalty: Opal's mother, Mi-yeon, to her dragon. Most of his followers are just employees, but Mi-yeon would rather die than endanger him.
  • Un Equal Pairing: Opal's father is a dragon; her mother is his First Mortal, and basically worships him. She acts more like a high priestess than the actual priests who appear in the series.
  • Unskilled, but Strong: Opal is a powerful mage, but despite years of very expensive schooling she just can't wrap her head around proper thaumaturgy. Her typical approach to magic is to grab a big chunk of it and throw it at the problem.
  • Virtual Sidekick: Opal has Sibyl, an AI assistant that takes care of every aspect of her life. Such A.I.s are so common that Nik is considered strange for not having one.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Opal meets multiple Heartstrikers over the series, and each time, comments on their signature bright green eyes. However, in The Heartstrikers, those green eyes were revealed to be the result of a spell Bethesda had cast so she could tell when her children were lying, and Amelia left Julius detailed instructions on how to break them to aid him in his efforts to free the clan, making it unclear why so many Heartstrikers, including Julius, would still have them.
  • The Worf Effect: Accidentally invoked, oddly enough. The Gameskeeper names Opal a challenger in his arena, and then a few minutes later tries to personally squash her. But arenas are all about the underdog upsetting the established champion, so as the God of Arenas he is at a huge disadvantage in this exact situation.

Alternative Title(s): Detroit Free Zone