By Timothy Zahn
I first learned of Timothy Zahn through his Star Wars books. Having enjoyed them, I picked up Dragon and Thief from the library. By the third paragraph someone said something dryly; by the fifth page someone conceded, “Point.” They also showed a tendency to bite out comments.
Dragon and Thief is a sci-fi novel, despite starring a dragon. It can be tricky to insert fantasy elements into science fiction, but Zahn did so seamlessly. His dragon is a poet-warrior of the K’da, a species that needs a symbiotic relationship with other beings to survive. Melded with its host, a K’da dragon becomes two-dimensional on his skin, appearing like a tattoo. A K’da can exist alone for only six hours before it needs to return to its host’s body.
Jack is a young thief on the run and on the reform. Draycos, noble K’da warrior, is the only survivor of a crashed ship of refugees from a distant part of the Milky Way. They meet on an isolated and purportedly uninhabited planet. K’da warrior and thief are an unlikely pair, but they have one thing in common: Both are on the edges of society, needing help and having no one to trust. On their mutual need – and lack of options – their partnership is formed.
The universe of Dragon and Thief is basic, well-constructed sci-fi: other species, megacorporations, an international government, a level of technology set solidly between Star Trek and our own. The plot flows along smoothly and takes some quick bends. Some important questions are left unanswered, a consequence of being the first book in a series.
The partnership of thief and warrior hits some ethical snags. I noticed the same aspect in Zahn’s Heir to the Empire trilogy: An unusual attention to basic morality while characters sneak and pull tricks. Even more, Zahn brings out the conflict between Draycos’ selfless morality and Jack’s training to look out only for himself. I was gratified by the exploration of their moral codes.
Dragon and Thief has the feel of a YA book. The main character is a young teen and the length is only 254 pages with the size and spacing of the words fairly generous. Still, the basic ideas of the book (conspiracy, refugees from war, beings that shift dimensions, the threatened extinction of a whole race) are on an adult level.
The moral considerations, too, are at first blush addressed to a teen audience, who have graduated from “It’s bad to tell lies” to “You can’t look out just for numero uno.” But the fact is that the lesson is ageless. Even after we make allegiance to the Golden Rule, we will find ourselves in situations where we are forced to choose – in the real, not in the abstract – whether we will take care of ourselves or do what’s right. And at the end, the moral considerations extend to include the death penalty.
In sum: Dragon and Thief is a good book, well worth the read.