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A novel by Timothy Zahn
(2003, Open Road Media)

Dragonback, book 1

After crashing on an uninhabited planet, a dragon-like creature finds a friend in an orphaned boy searching to clear his name from a theft he didn't commit.


-- First reading (ebook)
October 14th to 24th, 2018


The unique alien made this book quite enjoyable, and he was put to good use both as a stealth character, and as a moral compass for the teenager in the story. The adventure was well-written, and was often exciting. The kid-centric nature makes this a good story for younger teens, but I found the bad guys a bit too cartoonish. Regardless, the author, as always, writes a tale that never gets boring, and has many interesting twists.

Spoiler review:

The concept of an alien who can exist in two- and three-dimensional form is unique in my experience. I really liked how he could become almost like a tattoo, and even detach parts of his body to become three-dimensional when necessary, or even to talk to Jack. The opening scene, where the K'da/Shondin ship arrives at their sanctuary planet, only to fall under attack, were wonderfully written. Told from Draycos' point of view, it had all sorts of backstory built in, and the terror and disappointment that came from being discovered after all that time.

Most of the book takes place from Jack Morgan's point of view, and while it provides a lot of action and development of this character, I didn't find it as interesting as the few chapters told from Dracos' point of view.

Draycos is a K'da warrior-poet, which comes in handy several times. Jack is a retired thief, at least that's what he keeps trying to convince himself. He used to travel with his uncle, who was a master con-man and thief, but who was killed on their last scam. Now he lives alone on his uncle's ship, with his uncle's recorded personality downloaded into the ship's computer. Uncle Virge sounds a lot like his Uncle Virgil would have, with all sorts of quirks and personality deficiencies. I really liked the way the author sowed confusion about who these adults were, making us wonder why Jack had two uncles with almost the same name and personality. It was only when Draycos entered the picture that we discover he's not a real person.

Draycos lies dying on his crashed ship when Jack arrives, and he takes the chance that humans would be good hosts. The K'da can only live about six hours without attaching themselves to living beings, so it's not much of a choice for him. In exchange for this lifeblood, Draycos provides a huge advantage for Jack, in terms of protection and stealthy investigation ability.

It doesn't take long for Draycos to recharge, as right away they are discovered by the orbital attackers, and have to flee the crashed ship. Jack was there to salvage some technology, but instead ends up using Draycos as a life saver, as the dragon can jump huge distances and stretch lengthwise, such as between the ship and a tree. Speaking of trees, I really liked the description of the crash site, with the piled earth and shocked trees.

Thanks to Draycos, they leave the planet in one piece, and make their way to find out who set up the attack, because the K'da come from a distant part of the galaxy, and nobody except their contact should have known they were coming -certainly not their mortal enemies, with a weapon that can kill from a distance through the hull of an armored spaceship.

Before Jack can help Draycos, however, he needs to clear his name. He doesn't know why he was framed for losing a cargo, but it probably has something to do with his late uncle's profession. They make it to the planet where Jack picked up a cargo to pay his bills, and find that the missing cargo was actually composed of dry ice, so it sublimated in the ship's hold, and escaped into the atmosphere. They are attacked first by a group of scavenger animals, which Draycos easily defeats in a fit of K'da rage, and then by the people who obviously set Jack up.

The bad guys work for Braxton Universatis, but we find out later that they are part of a plot to kill the founder of the company. Uncle Virge is forced to leave, so Jack and Draycos are left alone to fend for themselves for a while. The funniest part of the book takes place at this point, as Jack poses as a children's entertainer for an alien celebration, and Draycos joins in.

All throughout the book, Jack is wary of his new symbiote, sometimes resentful, and at other times expecting the dragon to leave as soon as he finds somebody better. It isn't the focus of the book, fortunately, because it gets a little annoying at times. But Jack is a fourteen year old kid who has abandonment issues, so it's a normal feeling. I just found that it cropped up at the strangest times. It looks like Jack is a good kid, who ended up with an uncle who didn't give him the best start to life. On the other hand, he also gave Jack some very useful survival skills, including distraction abilities, and observation skills.

They are captured by the bad guys, and brought to a Braxton spaceship, where Jack is told to get his uncle to a luxury cruise liner to steal a cylinder, and replace it with a different one. Having no uncle alive, Jack improvises. He does a good job of the theft, first staking out the vault, making up stories and excuses, the kind only kids can do where adults see them as nuisances or unable to comprehend the larger issues.

Draycos shows his poet skills in finding out the name of the ship where they were taken to after their capture, when Jack was unconscious. Not knowing the language, he describes the letters in poem form, which was actually quite funny. The name doesn't mean anything to Jack, but it will become important when Draycos convinces Jack to return the stolen cylinder to its owner, who turns out to be none other than the founder of Braxton Universatis.

I didn't realize this book was a teen-reader's series until this point, because most of it was well-written and enjoyable for just about anyone. But looking back, I recognize that several markers pointed in this direction, which I completely missed. There is of course the fact that the main character is a teen, but the bad guys are what unfortunately mark this as meant for a younger age group.

At that point, it looks like Draycos' plan backfires, because the bad guys are also on board the cruise ship, and when their plan falls apart, they decide to take Braxton and Jack to an airlock to kill them. This part of the plan felt most of all like a children's book, unfortunately, and the bad guys became more cartoonish, and fell into bad stereotypes. At one point, they get so mad at Jack for trying to escape (a distraction, really, to get Draycos free of his body), and they threaten to kill him. But they'd rather kill him by throwing him out an airlock than shoot him. Later, as he's waiting for Draycos to act, he stalls them by talking endlessly. The bad guys are so inept at this point that they listen to him, instead of just shoving him into the airlock.

It buys them enough time for Draycos to cut the lights and attack, killing the main bad guys and wounding the others. Braxton is grateful, but is still a ruthless businessman, so wants to find out everything about Jack, his uncle, abilities, and the strange symbol Draycos etched onto his cylinder. In exchange, Braxton gives Jack fuel credits for his ship, and clears his name of theft and murder, both of which were setups to get at Jack's uncle.

So the story will continue, as Jack agrees to help Draycos find out who ambushed his people. There is a fleet of K'da colony ships waiting at a staging area, wondering where their scout ships are. With the captured K'da ships from the ambush, their enemies are probably already on the way to the rendezvous. There are five more books to this series, so Jack and Draycos better hurry. And I'm sure the people they foiled in this book will be on their tails.


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