Dragon and Thief: Dragonback book 1
by Timothy Zahn
Published by Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy (March 27, 2018)
The Dragonback series is a what they now call a YA [Young Adult] series, but I still like the older designation of a juvenile novel, since I grew up with it, and also because a lot of what is branded as YA seems like utter crap. Here is what Jerry Pournelle had to say in 2011 about juveniles:
I followed Robert Heinlein’s rules on ‘juveniles’ when I wrote it: no sex scenes, and as Robert used to say, a juvenile has young protagonists and you can put in more science and explanations of what’s going on in juvenile works; which is to say it’s a good story, and has always appealed to adults as well as to the 10 – 15 year olds it was sort of written for.
I like re-posting Jerry’s re-iteration of Heinlein’s definition because I find that my appreciation for a well-done juvenile novel only grows with time. I am of course influenced by having small children that I want to share stories with, but I also just like this kind of story, and I have for a long time. Something that is truly only fit for children cannot really be a juvenile novel in this sense, because the author needs to craft something as interesting to adults as to teenagers. A good juvenile is also mildly didactic, which fits well in the general hard sci fi mold. In this case, Zahn’s juvenile series is less about some useful aspect of science than about a young man learning what it means to be a good man after growing up as the orphan apprentice of a con man and a thief.
The hook which sets this series in motion is our young protagonist, Jack Morgan, stumbling across the wreckage of an unfamiliar starship. Within, he finds a lone survivor, desperate and near death. That survivor is dying precisely because he is alone. The K’Da are interdimensional symbionts. Draycos can push himself into three-dimensional space for brief periods, but in order to rest he must allow himself to relax by becoming two-dimensional on the surface of a compatible host. Unfortunately, his host, and all the other crew of his ship, were killed either in battle or in the subsequent crash.
Lacking recourse, Draycos gambles his life upon the possibility that Jack may provide the sanctuary he needs. Gathering his failing strength, he jumps! Zahn will likely have a lot of fun working out the implications of what this means over the next five novels in this series, but for now, Jack Morgan has gained an impressive tattoo/traveling companion with fierce claws and a strong sense of justice.
After this unlikely meeting, Jack and Draycos find that their lives are entwined in more ways than either initially suspects. Jack, despite [or because of?] his past life of crime, is hiding on this desolate planet because he has been unjustly accused of a crime. Draycos and his former crewmates were there seeking a new home, refugees of the losing side of an interstellar war. Somehow, this all hangs together, and part of the fun is finding out how and why.
Jack and Draycos immediately find themselves in each other’s debt, for Jack saves Draycos from dimensional dissolution, and Draycos returns the favor by saving Jack from the mercenary soldier prowling about the crashed ship looking for survivors, or witnesses. Fear and necessity bind them together initially, but the rest of the book, and presumably the following books in the series, are about Jack and Draycos learning about one another while trying to unravel the mystery in which they find themselves entangled.
The structure of Dragon and Thief is primarily a caper, as Jack uses his apprenticeship in crime to good advantage. This makes the novel rather fun, as we get to see Jack and Draycos bluff and scam their way through various adventures. However, Draycos himself makes for an interesting contrast, because his rather grand sense of honor is a continual foil for Jack’s primarily self-serving survival skills.
Jack is simultaneously fascinated and annoyed by Draycos, who like a knight of old, is fierce in battle, but he will not press an unfair advantage or abandon a fallen enemy in distress. Draycos, for his part, is occasionally appalled by Jack’s instincts, but mostly sees their fortuitous meeting as an opportunity to set Jack back on the straight and narrow in recompense for saving his life.
The interplay between them, mediated by the ship’s AI which houses the memory of the con man who raised Jack, is what raises this from an entertaining caper novel to a disquisition in very very applied ethics. The stakes in the story are dramatically high, but the basic questions are more fundamental: do you help someone because you expect recompense, or simply because it is the right thing to do? Do you defend yourself with maximum ruthlessness and force, because your enemies will not deign to extend you the same consideration, or do you seek the minimum of force which will allow you some measure of safety? Who can you really trust? And what hidden agendas lie behind offers of help and good intentions?
Since this is a juvenile novel, and not a work of historical fiction or political intrigue, these questions receive relatively straight forward answers. Which is in my opinion appropriate for the intended audience. At some point, harder questions and harder answers need to be proposed and given, but the result will be better built upon a foundation like this. It is far too easy to drift into nihilism otherwise.
I really liked this book, and I recommend it to fans of adventure fiction and juvenile novels in the Heinlein mold. You can pick the first three of six volumes up on Amazon right now for $2.99 USD, which is a great deal. I’ve got reviews coming of volumes two and three, so don’t fret.
Other books by Timothy Zahn
Night Train to Rigel: Quadrail book 1 review
The Third Lynx: Quadrail book 2 review
Odd Girl Out: Quadrail book 3 review
The Domino Pattern: Quadrail book 4 review
Judgement at Proteus: Quadrail book 5 review