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A novel by Timothy Zahn
(2005, Open Road Media)

Dragonback, book 3

Jack allows himself to be taken by slavers in his search for the mercenaries planning to attack the K’da refugee ships, and reluctantly befriends the slaves as he tries to extract information.


-- First reading (ebook)
January 18th to 29th, 2022


I still enjoy the adventures of Jack and Draycos, and the way Jack’s plans always go awry, because he’s a kid and though he tries to think things through, he doesn’t have that kind of experience. But he does win out in the end, and it’s a reasonable win, not requiring too much of a stretch in believability. It helps that Jack has Draycos, a capable and almost invisible warrior. The empathy with the slaves was a necessary part of Jack’s growth, I think, even if the middle of the book was rather slow and even predictable at times, not something I often say about this author. It’s nice to finally get some progress in the search, no thanks to all the plans. But there were so many plans in this book, and they all took time to execute, with very little payoff. This was more about character growth than anything, and on that front, it was a success.

Spoiler review:

Jack has very good hunches. He saw Brummgas in his first encounter on the K’da ship back in Dragon and Thief, and again when with the mercenary group, so he believes the slaver Brummgas are in on the plan to destroy the last of the K’da warriors. In the interests of finding their association, he allows himself to be sold into slavery on the Brummga homeworld, as part of the Chookoock family. Fortunately, this slaver family has a human liaison, even on his own planet, and Jack uses that to his advantage.

But a life of slavery isn’t even as good as Jack thinks it would be, and he’s thrown into the hotbox the very first night. Super cold at night, the box gets hot during the day. The slave den mother takes pity on him and brings a blanket, and despite his selfish nature, Jack warms up to her and the kids who slave away for this family. I wonder if they do much more than just pick berries. Not that that’s an easy life, but there are worse things that slaves could be put to use doing.

Draycos, with his honorable warrior ethic, is of course enraged about the slavery, and although Jack wants to avoid feelings on the subject, thanks to his uncle Virge, some of Draycos’ honor has rubbed off on him, so he is willing to go the extra distance and help out some of the slaves, especially the young ones. Where he has the means, he gives it.

Draycos spends the nights trying to cut a path through the hedge that separates the slave grounds from the main house, but it is discovered, and he isn’t much use in this situation. The author does a good job describing the bad living quarters, even to the point where Jack starts to rethink his plan. He can’t imagine how these slaves have come to accept their role. His life here is temporary, and he knows that if things get really bad, Draycos will probably be able to help him out of it. The slaves have none of that.

When the alien kid was taken by the Chookoock family daughter to be painted on, I knew this was the only way Jack would get into the house. The author being who he is, even when Jack did manage to get inside, taken as a plaything for the daughter, he had a tough time getting anything done. He and Draycos broke into Gazen’s office, but couldn’t break into the computer, so they hook up a complicated recording device to look over his shoulder, so to speak. They never have to use it, but it’s a nice try, and it shows how Jack was working on multiple plans at the same time, some of them falling to the wayside.

The special ability of the K’da, to become a two-dimensional skin on their hosts, was mostly put to use as reconnaissance in this book. Draycos could sniff the air to see if any Brummgas were around, or the poison in Jack’s food, not to mention sliding between cracks to get into the office and out of the hotbox/frying pan. There were no tactical displays as in the previous book, though he does take out the entire field of hidden Brummgas trying to guard the grounds as Jack leads the slaves out. Being a young adult book, I guess the author couldn’t kill any of the characters, even though that would have made a lot of sense in many cases. For example, Jack claims that giving the information to Starforce will cause Neverlin and his associates to change their plans, creep into the woodwork and disappear. But allowing Neverlin to live means the same thing. He knows that Jack can get into nasty situations and is probably aiming to save the K’da. Now that he’s escaped custody, if he was smart he would convince his superiors that Jack is a threat, especially since he’s teamed up with a survivor.

Jack doesn’t need to break into Gazen’s computer, because he’s brought in to demonstrate his thieving skills for potential buyers, which he does well. But Neverlin is there, who tried to capture and force him to work against Braxton in the first book of this series. But Neverlin is wearing a logo that Jack recognises, giving him the information he needs. I don’t see how this is conclusive in any way, but it’s at least a step forward compared with the last book.

In the end, Jack and Draycos steal Neverlin’s shuttle, cause a distraction, and use Uncle Virge’s extraordinary flying skills to escape. Taking the fighter shuttle captive with the shuttle’s pincer landing gear was a smart move to get them over the wall. I don’t think they would have even needed the fighter’s transponder to succeed, as all they needed to do was put the other ship between them and the wall, allowing it to take the brunt of the wall’s defenses.

The slaves who want out are taken to a safehouse, and Jack slips out the back door to escape the police, reuniting again with Uncle Virge, the AI remnant of his deceased Uncle Virgil. Draycos has shown himself to several people now, so I wonder if they need to be too stealthy anymore. It might make for other interesting opportunities to allow him to be visible to others.


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