When I first met Timothy Zahn, at Phoenix Comicon that was, I had him sign a stack of paperbacks that I'd picked up gradually but never read. I asked him where I should start in on his bibliography and he gave me some pointers. I never got round to doing so because, hey, too many books and too little time, so I ended up starting here. 'Dragon and Thief' is the first in his Dragonback series of, I believe, six short novels, which are so clearly YA that I'm sure there's a recommended grade level.
The core concept in play is the time-honoured one of a boy and his dragon, which is so prevalent in fiction that even I've written a series of stories on that line, albeit with a girl and her dragon. Here, what's usually a fantasy story is translated into science fiction, because young Jack Morgan has his own spacecraft and is hiding out on another world, on the grounds that this little working thief is ironically being sought for a crime that he didn't commit, when the dragon shows up. You won't be remotely surprised to find that they hook up but you may be surprised by how they do it.
He's Draycos and he's a K'da, a dragonlike alien species. He's also perhaps the sole survivor of a fleet of refugee ships that are betrayed and destroyed at the end of their supposed journey to safety. The neat little twist is that he's a symbiote, meaning that the K'da cannot survive in isolation for more than about six hours. They have to bond to a member of another species, traditionally, a humanoid one called the Shontine, who are the ones being persecuted by a third species, the Valahgua, and so decided to escape. With his host, and all the other Shontine, dead, Draycos must bond with Jack as the only other being in the vicinity.
What makes this series unique, in my experience, is that they don't merely bond telepathically like the men and dragons on Pern or Pip and Flinx or so many other examples. Here, Draycos jumps into the skin of his host, translating himself from three dimensions to two, appearing as a sort of living tattoo. I don't remotely understand how this works, because it's scientific nonsense, but it's a damn cool idea, too, that gives this series some major potential, especially as the K'da remains functional while in 2D form. Imagine Jack looking one way, but needing to look the other. The apparent tattoo can just shimmy round to his back and open its eyes. Ah yes, there are serious opportunities for this symbiotic relationship to be used in interesting ways!
And so we have Jack and Draycos, an interesting double act who have to find a way to both coexist and move forward through the story. However good he is at breaking the law, Jack never wanted to be a crook, but his conman uncle and only living relative, Virgil, taught him the business and it's a surprisingly useful one to know when stuck in a story like this. Draycos is a warrior poet, so he has the ability to both slow Jack down and teach him some morals and speed him up when he needs to fight. Similarly, Jack can teach Draycos plenty about the world he finds himself in and the two-way education going on in trying times is one of the highlights of the book. They don't just have their own story arcs, they often prompt the progression of the story arc of the other.
Given all that, the actual plot here is relatively straightforward. The first step to getting Jack into a position where he can help avoid the destruction of two alien races, is to clear his name of the false charges he's running from. So they head back into harm's way to figure out who, how and why and a host of other key questions. Some of this is relatively routine, familiar to anyone with more than a couple of intrigue in space novels under their belt. Some of it is neatly ingenious, reminding of the early days of Slippery Jim di Griz, the Stainless Steel Rat. How would his story have progressed, had he an alien dragon living in his skin, helping him out and leaping back into 3D whenever needed to take care of business.
The downside is surely that there's a lack of edge inherent in this being YA. Some aspects of the odd symbiotic relationship between the leads are simply off limits and Zahn has to have his bad guys do bad stuff without it being too bad, because parents might complain to librarians. Perhaps an adult audience won't be quite as forgiving about the central conceit of the novel, but I enjoyed it and I'm up to three teenage grandkids. It's just a suspension of disbelief requirement. If you can't deal with that in a review, you're not going to enjoy this novel. If you shrug and keep reading, then you won't have a problem with it in 'Dragon and Thief'.
I don't have books two to six ready to go and I didn't enjoy this so much that I must go out and buy them all, but I would read on if I had them to hand. Zahn wraps up this initial novel well, but there are a lot of questions that he's clearly going to spend a series answering and I'd like to find out how he plans to do so. How the relationship between Jack and Draycos pans out is one, but I'm thinking about deeper details. For instance, Jack's uncle Virgil is now Uncle Virge, dead but living on in the form of an AI that runs Jack's spaceship and that's a relationship I want to see grow, even if it must inherently be a one-way thing. Jack is who he is because of Virgil, good and bad, and I wonder how his virtual presence will continue to shape his life. Did I mention that Jack is still only fourteen?
And, of course, there's the little matter of the Valahguan genocide of the Shontine and the K'da, an immensely important matter to Draycos, who I assume is going to shape the direction forward just as much as Jack. They gain an important friend in this book, albeit a surprising one for them, and I have no doubt they'll gain more in the ongoing story. Again, given that this is YA, I'm pretty sure I know it'll end up but I'd like to see how we get there and Zahn is obviously a writer with abilities to do what needs to be done without necessarily doing it the way we expect. I'm sure there will be just as many surprises as there are future books and I'd like to know what they are too.
Sometimes I read YA and just enjoy it because it speaks to adults as well as kids. This isn't really one of those books. This is a YA book that I read and wonder how I would have reacted to it had I been a fourteen-year-old boy when I found it, or even the ten-year-old I was when I discovered the genre of science fiction and started to explore it. I think I'd have enjoyed this a lot more back then and a ten-year-me would absolutely have wanted to dive straight into book two, 'Dragon and Soldier', a title which surely suggests where things are going next. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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