A few years ago Timothy Zahn met with some relatives and one of them suggested to him that he should try writing a young adult novel. At first he laughed and thought it was a fun joke. The idea kept nagging at him and he started thinking about a story idea that, if the main character was changed just a little bit, could be a great young adult story. Plus, all of his books are strictly PG in content anyway so it might be a natural fit.
He decided to give it a try and began writing the Dragonback Bargain series of young adult books.
Timothy Zahn, I posit, was wrong in his decision. He was not wrong in thinking that young adult audiences were a natural fit for his stories. He was wrong in thinking that he needed to write differently than he usually did in order to sell to a younger audience. The first book in the series, Dragon and Thief, felt like a lecture. Every time there was a big word, rather than trusting the reader to look it up or figure it out in context the word was defined in the narrative. He tried to do it cleverly by having the character look up words for definitions or having a character explain things to other characters but it felt condescending.
With the subsequent books he has grown into the genre much more fully and has reverted to his natural self. Which is a good thing indeed. Zahn is always full of great twists, beautiful character arcs and unique aliens.
With Dragon and Herdsman he feels much more comfortable with the young adult genre and, in fact, the only things that really distinguish it from his other work is that the protagonist is only fourteen and the book is barely three hundred pages long.
Jack Morgan is an orphan, raised by his uncle, the famous con-man and thief, Virgil Morgan. Uncle Virgil dies suddenly, leaving Jack with his ship, controlled by the AI computer that Virgil implanted with his own personality matrix. The computer, Uncle Virge, has the same cynical, every man for himself, a lie is better than a hundred truths, kind of attitude that Uncle Virgil had. In Dragon and Thief Jack meets Draycos, a K’da warrior poet. The K’da are a group of aliens that look very much like dragons of earth legends. They are fierce fighters and have very sharp claws and teeth. They have one major weakness, however. They can only survive about six hours without a host. A K’da must revert to a two dimensional form on the surface of their hosts skin – appearing like a detailed tattoo. There is a plot to destroy all of the K’da and it is apparently tied up in the upper forms of government, some of the mercenary groups and even part of the management of Braxton Universis, a large shipping company.
In the next two books Jack and Draycos infiltrate a mercenary group and sell themselves as slaves in an attempt to find information vital to the survival of Draycos’ species. Draycos, in the meantime, takes it as his personal quest to educate Jack, his new host, in the morals of a poet warrior. Namely, stealing, lying and cheating are not acceptable means of survival.
In Dragon and Herdsman Jack and Draycos meet up with Allison Kayna, a friend of Jack’s from when he worked as a mercenary. They are both on the run from one of the mercenary leaders and Jack offers to give Allison a ride to a rendezvous location where she says some friends are planning to meet her.
On Rho Scorvi they find that her friends are late and that the natives, the Erasvas, maintain herds of Phookas – which look exactly like K’da. Draycos and Jack are shocked. Draycos suddenly faces the possibility that his species has not always been highly advanced and cultured, but are possibly herd animals.
The mercenaries follow them and Jack, Allison, and Draycos are forced to flee into the forest, taking the herd of Phookas and their Erasvas hosts with them. After all the mercenaries want to exterminate the K’da, what would they do if they found a whole herd of them?
The rest of the book is pure Timothy Zahn genius. There are twists and counter twists. Draycos is forced to face the disturbing possibility that his people are naturally unintelligent. He even contemplates at one point that maybe the Phookas would be better off dead than scraping the dirt for grubs and scratching the bark off of trees. Jack is slowly learning to think of others without Draycos prompting and despite insistence to the contrary from Uncle Virge. There is one beautiful moment where he actually chides Draycos on his feeling of disgust for the Phookas, tipping the balance of moral tutor/student on its head.
Timothy Zahn’s characters always figure out clever ways of dealing with problems and clues are always present in the narrative so that it is possible for the reader to come up with the same plan, given the information presented. I love this aspect of his books. Whenever he mentions a certain kind of plant or a marking on the side of a box I get a little thrill of anticipation for what’s to come.
Timothy Zahn writes science fiction that is very light on science. There is no explanation of how faster than light travel works, there are no physics lessons buried within the story. That is not to say that there is silly science – no technobabble here – his books just aren’t about the science.
What they are about is characters dealing with difficult situations to the best of their ability, and growing from the experience. His characters are always believably normal with a limited range of skills. Jack is a brilliant lock-pick (both physical and electronic) and an accomplished liar and a great actor (good for cons) and has great charisma – he is a lousy soldier, and a terrible scholar, skills that are made up for by Draycos and Allison.
Dragon and Herdsman is an excellent book that kept me entertained. It’s kind of a standard of Timothy Zahn that I expect to have a lot of fun whenever I read one of his books. He always comes through.