Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Mildly Belated Book Review: Dragonback

I've mentioned in the past that Timothy Zahn is one of my favorite current authors.

The Dragonback series is a pretty nice piece of work. Granted, it's "young adult" fiction, but he doesn't particularly simplify it for the readers' sake; he just makes sure it's accessible and appropriate. (Though I would suggest that most of his work is already accessible and appropriate for young adults.)

Among other things, Dragonback is sharp space opera and wonderful world-building. With Zahn in there, there was no way I could say no.

The story opens with Draycos, a dragon-creature called a K'da, on board a ship of refugees fleeing a formidable enemy known only as the Valahgua. The ship is part of a small convoy sent to prepare a world for a fleet of refugees, because the K'da and their partner species, the Shontine, can't take the Valahgua on, and they know it.

When they arrive at the planet, the ships are attacked by unknown vessels mounting unique Valahgua weaponry, and they know that they've been betrayed. Unfortunately, there's no way for them to escape the Valahgua weapons or to warn the refugee fleet. Fortunately, before the entire crew dies, the ship crashes; again unfortunately, there is only one survivor, Draycos himself.

This is almost a no-survivors situation, because the K'da need symbiotic hosts in order to survive, and only two species known have ever been able to host K'da. In what is probably the single most fantastic element of the setting, K'da bond to their hosts by becoming two-dimensional "tattoos." (This is of course a tremendous oversimplification; they actually are supposed to withdraw partially into "four dimensional space," and bond with the skin of their hosts. How they actually derive benefits this way is rather obscure and also completely unimportant. The point is, the K'da are cool aliens who have cool alien powers. There, I said it.) If six hours pass separated from a host, a K'da's strength will fail, and he or she will die.

Draycos becomes incredibly weak waiting for the enemy to come down and finish him off, but instead, a young con artist named Jack Morgan arrives, hoping to salvage something valuable. By this point, Draycos is so weak that he knows he can do only one thing before he dies and evaporates. (K'da actually are supposed to turn two-dee when they die, and then disintegrate. Obviously, they don't leave bodies.) He has the choice of attacking and killing Jack, whom he recognizes as young and probably not hostile, or trying for the one-in-a-million chance that he might be able to take this unknown species as a host.

And of course, you know how one-in-a-million chances usually turn out in fiction-it's practically guaranteed.

Obviously, Jack is pretty nonplussed that he is now host to a noble alien warrior who really desperately wants help in protecting his entire people from extinction; he's got his own problems, most particularly an accusation of thievery, even though he didn't even steal this particular item. (He's actually mostly a reformed con artist; he mostly stole for his now-deceased uncle who might not technically have been his uncle.)

The series flows naturally out of the interactions between Jack and Draycos, and the AI of Jack's ship, Uncle Virge, who imprinted off of his Uncle Virgil and who helps Jack cover for the fact that he's a minor without a guardian. Draycos, who himself is an adult at about thirty, impresses upon Jack the need to do the right thing; Uncle Virge insists he should take care of himself.

Then, of course, there's the fact that the three of them, taken together, complement and augment each other's capabilities. Jack, while he's no longer interested in thieving for a living, does have a considerable aptitude for deception (particularly helpful is his youthful appearance-he's good at looking innocent) and also for a fair amount of the nitty-gritty of stealing things. Draycos is the ultimate concealed weapon, undetectable to those who don't know what to look for (and nobody does in the first three books) and able to take on a small army, with claws that can cut metal and low-level superhumanoid strength (though strictly speaking he is not humanoid), plus other, more bizarre abilities, as well as a truly remarkable strategic mind. Uncle Virge provides a little bit extra when he can maintain radio contact with them (for instance, translating alien languages they don't speak), and being essentially a living ship, is also close air support and the cavalry when need be.

I've only read books one and three (plus some Google Books previews of two and four), but I can tell you-while it builds a bit slowly in book one (Dragon and Thief), by the end of that, it has unfolded into a complex, clever Zahn plot, and it never goes back. There are six books in all, and it is now a complete series.

The series has poignant moments; in the first book (I hope you don't mind if I spoil it-I've spoiled myself a few times already), Jack remarks that Draycos has huge advantages over humans-he's faster, stronger, and more agile than any human, and even smarter than Jack on top of it. Draycos looks rather sober for a moment, and then replies that he can never live alone for more than six hours. (Also, to be fair to Jack, Draycos is sixteen years older than Jack and trained in military strategy, and also has a considerable literary background. I'd probably feel intimidated myself.)

There are also funny and lighthearted moments, often contrasted in rapid succession with grimmer ones (though I won't go out of my way to spoil those). All in all, the Dragonback series is fast-paced quality Zahn, and I strongly recommend it.

As a momentary aside: I find myself rather sad that it's highly unlikely that Star Wars could ever cross over with Dragonback. Once you get past the numerous in-universe and copyright hurdles, there's potential for an idea that fills me with glee and warm fuzzies-a K'da Jedi.

Why is this so amusing?

K'da can't carry personal items or wear clothes because of their six-hour limit on independence. So a K'da Jedi would have to find a symbiotic partner to wear the Jedi robes and carry the Jedi gadgets and credentials, including the lightsaber.

Which means that some K'da Jedi might end up with an all but useless (with regards to combat and such, at least) partner to ride around on. And that thought amuses me terribly.

-Signing off.

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