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A novel by Timothy Zahn
(2007, Open Road Media)

Dragonback, book 5

While Jack is captured by strange aliens wanting him to be their arbitrator, Alison is kidnapped and threatened until she agrees to open a special safe, one containing the information on where the K’da fleet will be emerging.


-- First reading (ebook)
June 22nd to 26th, 2022


Another solid outing in this series. It’s gaining momentum, both in finding the information they need, and in resolving Jack’s past. I think it was a great idea to split up Jack and Alison, and to have them focus on their parts in bringing the story forward. I’m amazed at how the author can bring to life different kinds of alien species, especially the Golvins, who literally force Jack to make rulings about their society. Alison and Taneem had time to get to know each other and learn, too, especially on board the cruise ship, and again on the planet where Jack had been a slave. I liked both parts of the story equally, as they each had their own share of danger and heroic sacrifices –and both characters, used to doing things on their own, are forced to do the right thing, because they know it’s the right thing to do, no matter their upbringing or the cost to themselves.

Spoiler review:

I wasn’t planning to read this book right away after finishing the last one, but the draw was too strong, and there was too much momentum to the story to put it aside. And after completing this one, I’ve decided to go straight into the conclusion to the series! Given the slow start to the series, not just in terms of story, but writing style, too, I didn’t expect this. But now that things are moving, the author seems to have reverted back to his old Star Wars style, and even though there is no fight scene until the very end, so we don’t see the K’da warrior in action until then, the story is kept very interesting on its own merits.

Although I found the Golvins to be a very interesting race, I think I liked Alison’s situation better. Upon arriving on the planet Semaline, Jack is kidnapped by a bunch of small aliens, though I could be mistaken about their size, especially given their capabilities later in the book. Jack plays along when it’s clear he can’t escape without harming these people, and he doesn’t want Draycos to try, either. For somebody who wants to avoid harm as much as possible, it’s a reasonable premise. It turns out that the aliens smelled something of Jack’s parents on him, enough to bring him to their village in an almost inaccessible ravine, and force him to be their judge.

As near as I can tell, these beings gain status by getting lower numbers to their names, such that somebody with a higher number than them can’t even trespass on their property –it’s like the ultimate class system. Jack is given a list of complaints, and has to resolve them within the culture these aliens espouse, while being fair all the time. He uses the considerable skill that Uncle Virgil taught him to be a fair judge, and the Golvins are satisfied. But it’s clear that they are hiding something.

I wasn’t sure about Jack’s travels to the mine, and I wish we could have seen his negotiations, but it probably would have been disappointing. The secret the Golvins were hiding was about Jack’s parents, who were both Judge-Paladins and were contesting the rights to mine minerals in the Golvin ravine. They were killed by Neverlin (presumably) when they were going to rule the wrong way. The Golvins were threatened never to reveal the truth, but Jack is determined, and figures it out.

When a scout shows up in the ravine, Jack recognises his “type”, and eventually Jack is caught and the man brings him to the mine to kill him. Draycos fends him off for a while, but when the entrance collapses, Jack uses the equipment at the bottom of the shaft to dig their way out. I really liked the way the bad guy didn’t just leave them to their fate, but was around when Jack and Draycos emerged.

Of course, the Golvins think Jack has brought destruction on them, and confine him to his living quarters. Draycos is seriously injured while trying to get Jack free, and it’s only through the help of a navy pilot who had been imprisoned for the last five years among the Golvins that they get into hiding. Then, when the mercenaries attack, raining destruction on the ravine, Uncle Virge picks them all up.

I really liked the way Jack did everything by exploring, and we are shown that Draycos is not infallible, though I do think he lowered his guard too quickly when the arrow hits him. Jack learns a lot about his heritage in this book, especially the way Uncle Virgil lied to him for all of his life, trying to turn him into a thief. And if Alison is right and the Essenay (S&A for Stuart and Ariel) belonged to Jack’s parents, how has the ship gone unnoticed for all this time? Surely a diplomatic ship wouldn’t be forgotten?

As for Alison, she’s captured when she goes after Uncle Virgil’s old stash, captured by mercenaries who have been watching out for him. She’s a really good bluffer, and has the skills to go with it, so she manages to get hired by Neverlin and Frost, who apparently don’t know what she looks like from the last book. Taneem goes exploring the ship on their way out, gaining some intelligence, while Alison is forced to open some private safes to prove her worth, and because she’s planted the seeds of doubt between Frost and Neverlin.

It turns out that Alison was hired to open the safe from the K’da/Shontine fleet, which will give them the location of the fleet’s rendezvous point. They had four safes, but two were destroyed by booby traps when the code-breakers missed one. With Taneem’s help, she is able to open the third one, hoping to get to the fourth to get her own copy of the data crystals at a later time. This happens, though, on the Grummba world where Jack was a slave back in Dragon and Slave. The slaves who remained are restless, having missed their chance at escape, and are ready to fight now. Alison is slated for death, but Taneem helps her escape, and they hide among the slaves. When the time is right, she calls in a fake ransom for Frost from this compound, and when the Malison Ring attacks, she manages to get away with the slaves.

I was surprised to see her story end this way, but I suppose they will save the last safe for the next book. Jack, for his part, is angry and frustrated that he brought so much death and destruction to the Golvins as he escaped, and the death of the navy pilot. What he doesn’t know is that Langston survived, and is signing up with Malison Ring to infiltrate them.

I’m still wondering about Alison. As Taneem says, she has her own agenda. In one scene, she indicates that she only learned English a few months ago. She shushed Taneem when the K’da mentions that Malison is just Alison with an M. And her “associates” moved the Phookas off the planet from the last book for some reason. She’s definitely on Jack’s side, as she goes to a lot of trouble for Draycos and Jack. At one point I thought she was a disguised Shontine, but that doesn’t make sense, because she was genuinely surprised by Draycos and Taneem (which we got from her point of view). But she opened the safe which I thought could only be opened by a K’da and Shontine together, unless I’m wrong. I also interpreted her comments at the end of the last book incorrectly, as I suspected, as she was trying to keep an eye on Frost knowing that he escaped, not rescuing him. Frost targets her for death after she cracks the safe because he suddenly recognises her as a deserter from one of the Malison Ring bases. Interesting…

The two-person structure of the book worked in its favor, as both plots complemented each other. Draycos and Taneem had a somewhat reduced role, but both Jack and Alison shone, and I’m looking forward to the conclusion!


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