Saturday, April 12, 2008

Timothy Zahn

Dragon and Thief
by Timothy Zahn
Recommended Age: 12+

Many, many times a week I receive messages from readers, asking where they should turn after reading all the Harry Potter books until their pages fell out. What answer could be more appropriate than another thrilling fantasy series featuring a teenaged boy hero? Only, that doesn’t really narrow it down very much. That could, for example, be a description of the Pendragon, Gregor, Magickers, or Artemis Fowl series, just off the top of my head. If you’re willing to make a stretch into other genres, there are also the Alex Rider spy novels, the Darren Shan horror cycle, and even a series of juvenile hardboiled mysteries featuring the Diamond Brothers. But that leaves a gaping genre hole: science fiction.

Well, I have now found a series to plug that hole: the Dragonback series. It took me a while – but then, not being much of a sci-fi fan, I wasn’t looking very hard. Actually, I have had the first three Dragonback books on my shelf for quite a while, but only when I read them did I discover that this ongoing series by Hugo-award-winning, sometime Star Wars novelist Timothy Zahn, is as exciting, thought-provoking, and unputdownable as the Pendragon and Alex Rider books.

In this first book of the Dragonback series, two heroes meet. One is a human boy named Jack Morgan: a 14-year-old orphan, raised by a con man to know all the tricks of the trade, and now alone in the universe except for a spaceship computer with the programmed-in personality of his late Uncle Virge. Jack is on the run from the law when he witnesses a space battle high above an uninhabited planet. While sifting through the wreckage of one of the ships, he discovers the other member of the titular duo: Draycos. (I’ll bet you can already guess which one is “Dragon” and which is “Thief.”)

Draycos looks like a tiger-sized dragon with golden scales that turn black when he goes into his battle rage. But Draycos really isn’t a dragon. He is a poet-warrior of the K’da race – an intelligent, alien being from a far corner of the galaxy. And here’s the weird part: he can only stay in three-dimensional form for about six hours at a time. The rest of the time, he has to take the form of a moving, talking tattoo on the skin of some other being – like his Shontine partner who was killed in the crash – and like Jack, the first human he has ever met.

Soon Jack and Draycos get to know each other really, really well. It’s hard to beat sharing the same body surface most of the time. It’s not a parasite-host relationship, though. It’s more like a symbiosis, where Draycos draws energy from Jack’s skin, and Jack finds a fierce and loyal protector in Draycos.

Still, they both tend to hope it will be a temporary partnership. They are quite an odd couple, after all. Jack is full of street-wise figures of speech and the “look out for number one” ethics of his cheating, stealing uncle. Draycos is serious, morally upright, and given to composing epic poetry. Every time he seems to be influencing Jack for the better, the interfering, digital personality of Uncle Virge butts in (or rather, bytes in) with his self-serving values.

So they make a deal. Draycos will help Jack clear his name of a crime he didn’t commit... and Jack will help Draycos find out how his people’s enemy, the Velahgua, managed to set a trap for his people’s advance guard, and how to keep the rest of Draycos’ people from falling into that trap as they flee from the Velahgua’s aptly named Death weapon.

In this book, Draycos settles his end of the deal. The two unlikely partners prove to be strong allies in a battle of wits and wills against powerful, big-money villains. Jack’s nerve and nimble fingers combine with Draycos’ swift reflexes and warrior skills to keep the pair alive through many futuristic dangers. And with everything going against them, they somehow make it to the bottom of a mystery that includes a murder plot, kidnapping, breaking into a bank vault, surprises, betrayals, narrow escapes, and even a few clues about who was behind the attack on Draycos’ ship.

And with that encouraging start, the Dragonback series takes off – and it is still flying, at least four books strong. Once you hop aboard, you won’t want to get off after just one book. This is no problem if you start right away on the second book, titled Dragon and Soldier.

Dragon and Soldier
by Timothy Zahn
Recommended Age: 12+

In the first Dragonback adventure, Dragon and Thief, 14-year-old human orphan, runaway, and sometimes thief Jack Morgan joined up with Draycos, a K’da warrior-poet who sometimes looks like a dragon, sometimes like a moving, talking tattoo on Jack’s skin. Brought together from opposite ends of the galaxy, they form a strange partnership. Draycos needs Jack’s companionship to survive from day to day; without spending much of his time in tattoo mode, he would fade away into nothing. Jack, on the other hand, needs Draycos’ strength, agility, and warrior code of honor to protect him from danger... and to make him a better man.

In their last adventure, Draycos helped Jack foil a sinister plot and clear his name of a crime he did not commit. But the greater part of their adventures still lie ahead, as Draycos has only a few months to save his people from a deadly trap. Someone in Jack’s part of the galaxy has joined forces with the Valahgua, enemies of the K’da and their Shontine partners, who are migrating to a new home-world to escape from the Valahgua and their aptly-named Death weapon. As the sole survivor of his people’s “advance guard,” Draycos needs to find out who is responsible for the attack that killed all his shipmates, and where their enemies plan to rendezvous with the main fleet, so that he can warn them in time.

Jack and Draycos have only a few clues to work with. Mercenaries were involved in the attack. So in a move so daring and selfless that his ship’s computer, “Uncle Virge,” cannot help but disapprove, Jack infiltrates a mercenary organization that accepts recruits as young as 14. He hopes that, by doing this, he can gain access to records about the mercenary ships that attacked Draycos’ people. But between the brutality of basic training, the danger of a war zone, and a series of betrayals, captures, and narrow escapes, it is all Jack can do to survive. More and more, he depends on his “secret weapon” – the tattoo that can slide off his skin and take three-dimensional shape – the alien warrior whose survival only he knows about – Draycos.

As the friendship grows between these two dynamic characters, so does the pleasure of reading about their adventures. Here you will find all the best bits of science fiction, mystery, and spy fiction wrapped around a thrilling, high-energy adventure. Pages of pure fun alternate with social commentary and thought-provoking discussions of moral values. Humor, suspense, surprise, and nail-biting tension combine in a futuristic setting so interesting and complicated that it would take pages of description to do it justice... and yet, without boring you with those pages of description, the setting is totally convincing and the story is captivating. So once you’ve followed the adventure this far, you won’t want to miss Book 3 of the Dragonback series, titled Dragon and Slave.

Dragon and Slave
by Timothy Zahn
Recommended Age: 12+

Fourteen-year-old Jack Morgan is a remarkable boy in many ways. He has his own spaceship, for starters. An orphan since the age of 3, he was brought up by his late Uncle Virgil – a con-man, safe-cracker, and thief who taught Jack everything he knew. Now he flies around in a ship called Essenay, whose computer has been programmed with Uncle Virge’s memories and personality. He tries not to get into too much trouble. But it’s hard, especially when he has a tattoo that moves, speaks, and sometimes slides off his body to take the 3-dimensional form of a golden dragon.

Until now, no one else has seen the dragon – but that doesn’t mean he only exists in Jack’s mind. The dragon is actually Draycos, an alien from a distant planet, who needs Jack’s help to prevent a deadly trap from wiping out all his people. The sometimes-two-dimensional K’da, along with their usual skin-buddies the Shontine, are fleeing across the galaxy to escape from a ruthless enemy with unstoppable, deadly weapons. Only Draycos survives of the advance guard who were wiped out by an ambush by that same enemy, in combination with mercenaries and conspirators from Jack’s part of the galaxy. So they can trust no one – not the government, not even the influential businessman whose life they saved in Dragon and Thief. It’s up to the two of them to find out who is responsible for the ambush, and to stop it being repeated when the main fleet arrives.

With the fate of at least two races in their hands, and no closer to a solution after attempting to infiltrate a mercenary group, Jack and Draycos follow their thin trail of clues to the planet Brumm-a-dum. Somehow, the slave-dealing Brummgas are involved in the conspiracy. So Jack allows himself to be captured and sold into slavery!

Using his position as a slave to find information turns out to be tougher than Jack expected. The harsh life of slavery takes a toll on his body and mind. Ruthless masters, two-faced traitors, nightmarish forms of punishment, and – worst of all – his growing conviction that he cannot leave without setting his fellow slaves free, make this a mission Jack Morgan would not survive without the help of his secret partner Draycos. Enter the snake-voiced villain behind all their troubles...and it becomes far from certain that the two of them, even together, can escape.

I have not yet seen the fourth book in the Dragonback series, titled Dragon and Herdsman. [UPDATE: Yes, I have.] But the series started strong, and each book has been better than the last. It’s hard to imagine how the fourth book can top this one. I can’t wait to find out.

Dragon and Herdsman
by Timothy Zahn
Recommended Age: 12+

This fourth book in the Dragonback series is one of the handful of books I have awaited with the greatest anticipation. It really surprises me how few copies of this book and its companions one sees in the big chain bookstores. In fact, I eventually had to special-order this book, because Borders showed no inclination to carry it on their shelves. This is the kind of error and injustice I feel it is the duty of The Book Trolley to address. Please hear my appeal, and go to any effort necessary to get hold of Timothy Zahn’s Dragonback books, beginning with Dragon and Thief and now including a fifth book, Dragon and Judge. You won’t be disappointed. They are, in my opinion, one of the strongest ongoing contenders for the title of “Best Series To Turn To When Harry Potter Is Over.”

Jack Morgan has gone through a lot with his K’da symbiont. Draycos, in his three-dimensional form, is a large, powerful, dangerous dragon, a poet-warrior whose values of honor and courage have increasingly rubbed off on the boy. Or maybe this “rubbing off” happened during Draycos’ spells in two-dimensional form, when he needs to spend one hour out of seven resting against his host’s skin like a moving, talking tattoo.

Raised by a con-man uncle with a look-out-for-number-one outlook, and still sheltered by a starship whose computer is imprinted with that uncle’s personality, fourteen-year-old Jack couldn’t have been a more unlikely partner for Draycos, in the beginning. By now, they seem more like a team. But Jack is concerned. Strange things are happening, things Draycos has never experienced before, things that may suggest that Jack’s body is rejecting Draycos — such as the dragon’s newfound ability to slide off Jack’s skin in two-dimensional form, and his heightened senses, etc.

Together, the pair is still trying to figure out how to stop the Malison Ring of mercenaries, and their other associates, from destroying a wave of refugees from Dracyos’s homeworld. The K’da and their Shontine hosts will be sitting ducks for the ambush, unless Jack and Draycos get there first to warn them. But this is no easy task. A bungled attempt to hack the Malison Ring’s computers leads to an unlikely rescue by Jack’s sometime messmate, fellow soldier-in-training Alison. The mercenaries manage to track Jack to the planet where he was going to drop Alison off, and suddenly the pair find themselves leading a herd of feral K’da through a primitive forest, hoping to protect them from the heavily-armed soldiers committed to destroying them.

Draycos himself isn’t pleased to meet these new K’da, or rather, Phookas. Their docility and lack of intelligence raise disturbing doubts about his beliefs about K’da history. But Jack proves to have a remarkable gift as a herdsman, and a surprising commitment to saving the Phookas and their chubby, berry-eating Erassva hosts. Their work is cut out for them, with several days’ forced march between them and the site where Jack’s ship may be waiting for them — if it hasn’t already been destroyed. Meanwhile, they face hazards from nature as well as the increasingly fool-proof maneuvers of their mercenary pursuers.

Before they reach their journey’s end, surprises are in store — some of them exciting, some disturbing. At the end, it is clear that Draycos and Jack’s most perilous adventures lie still ahead. Equally clear is the fact that this series is the most captivating read in young readers’ science fiction today. Try it if you don’t believe me. If you do believe me, then you know what you have to do!

EDIT: Dragon and Judge, the fifth book in this series, continues to elude me. Be assured that I will read it, and write about it, as soon as I get hold of it. Besides, a sixth book - Dragon and Liberator - is due to come out next month! If you're interested, Wiki for more information about the author and a list of his works.


lanath said...

I work in a middle school library and kids love these books! Do you know of anything similar other than the ones already mentioned above?

RobbieFish said...

How similar? Read the "books" thread on my blog to see a lot more reviews of YA titles. I don't specialize in sci-fi particularly. I have read some of the YA sci-fi titles by Robert Heinlein, Orson Scott Card, Madeleine L'Engle, and Diana Wynne Jones. I can't vouch for, but know of, other YA-SF series such as James Patterson's "Maximum Ride" and some space-ship family series that I spotted at Borders. For a larger selection, including fantasy, mystery, spy fiction, historical fiction, etc. see my column "The Book Trolley" on MuggleNet dot com.