Review: Dragon and Thief

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.

Review: Dahveed: Yahweh’s Warrior

Written by Terri Fivash

Written by Terri Fivash

This, the second installment of the Dahveed series, continues the successes of the first. The characters and the emotions remain strong. Michal shows glimpses both of the woman who saved David’s life and the woman who despised him. David and Jonathan’s relationship deepens and shifts with David’s inexorable path to the kingship. Jonathan treats the man chosen to take his place with remarkable love and loyalty, and sometimes complete exasperation. These are among the book’s best moments.

Yahweh’s Warrior has more action and a quicker pace than Yahweh’s Chosen. With David a full-fledged warrior, and caught now in the see-saw of Saul’s vacillating emotions, the story gains more drama. I have two criticisms of the book. The first is that David’s inferiority complex grew tiresome before the book finally got past it. The second is that certain elements went against the scriptural narrative:

  • The Bible clearly gives the reason for David not marrying Merab as his refusal. But Fivash portrays it as a result of other characters’ scheming.
  • Saul’s attempted annihilation of the Gibeonites was, according to 2 Samuel 21:2, done in his “zeal for Israel and Judah”. Terri Fivash gives him a different motive: Two Gibeonite assassins who tried to murder Jonathan.
  • There is a servant, Balak, an enemy of David’s who poisons Saul against him. This is not in itself bad, but too much of the blame and reason for Saul’s animosity is rolled onto Balak. Even his first command to kill David is prompted by Balak’s lies. Saul’s hatred of David came from his jealousy and fear. He recognized that God was with David, that He had chosen David to be king. The causes for Saul’s hostility were in his own heart.

Reading Yahweh’s Warrior, I was impressed again by how Terri Fivash sets her characters free of the modern mindset. Two instances in particular struck me. One, Jonathan wondered to Michael if the lack of children in their family was God’s judgment. Two, he was afraid of the punishment that would come on his family because Saul had slaughtered the Gibeonites. We know that it did come, but who among us, if a relative of ours murdered someone, would worry about divine judgment coming on our whole family?

I enjoyed Dahveed: Yahweh’s Warrior even more than its predecessor, and I eagerly await the publication of the next book.

Review: Dahveed: Yahweh’s Chosen

Written by Terri Fivash

There are few figures in the Bible so riveting as David. From his anointing in 1 Samuel 16 to his death in 1 Kings 2, he remains center stage. Then the Chronicles give an abbreviated account of him – 18 chapters long. There are few stories in the Old Testament so impressed on the human race as the story of David and Goliath. Why shouldn’t he fascinate us? He was a king, a servant, a fugitive, a warrior, a musician. He was the ancestor and foreshadowing of Christ, Israel’s beloved singer and the shepherd boy who became king, the man of God who stood so high and fell so low.

Many people have written novels based on his story. A few years ago I searched my library system for such books; I found it hard to come by a really good one. Terri Fivash has written one.

Biblical fiction is hard on several levels. One is the need to remain faithful to the Bible. Terri Fivash largely succeeded. Where I thought she failed, it was out of misinterpreting Scripture rather than ignoring it. For an example, Fivash’s Dahveed was illegitimate. She bases this on Psalm 51:5 as found in the KJV: “Behold … in sin did my mother conceive me.” The NASB reads the same way, but the NIV and NLT read, “Surely I was … sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”

Unlike the first translation, this one leaves no room for the interpretation that David is confessing his illegitimate birth. Fivash accused the NIV and NLT of “contorting” this verse. I am generally skeptical of those who, not being professional translators, correct those who are. Fivash’s argument that David could not have been speaking of original sin, since that doctrine was first formulated by St. Augustine, holds no water for me. It is like saying  that Jacob’s prophecy of the ruler’s staff coming to Judah could not have been a prophecy of the Messiah because the Patriarchs had no conception of the Messiah.

Another challenge of writing biblical fiction is bringing the figures of the Bible to life. This is where Terri Fivash does some of her best work. David was done well enough, but it is with Saul’s family that Fivash really shines. Michal and Jonathan are the ones typically featured in novels about David, and Dahveed is no exception. But the portrait is richer, more complex than often seen. Jonathan roars in this book. His passionate nature – his honor toward God and men, his anger and intense loyalty – enlivens the whole book. Even Merab, Eshbaal, Ishvi, and Malki-shua are drawn out. We see Saul and his family as a family – each member in their individuality, with their love, differences, tension, and loyalty.

The third challenge of biblical fiction – and where Terri Fivash excels – is creating a foreign culture. It’s distracting to read a story set 3,000 years ago and have the characters showcasing the assumptions of our own time. Fivash does not give her characters our western assumptions; she gives them assumptions of their own. The culture she creates is rich, meaningful, distinct. Ways of thinking foreign to us are taken for granted by her characters.

I deeply enjoyed Dahveed, as historical fiction and even more as biblical fiction. I was drawn into its story, its characters, and its emotions. I give it a high recommendation.

Book Review: Mozart’s Sister

Written by Nancy Moser

Mozart’s Sister is a historical novel based on the life of Nannerl Mozart. The oft-forgotten sister of Wolfgang Mozart, she was also highly talented. In their childhoods they toured Europe together, the Wunderkinder (Wonder Children). Nannerl was older by five years and, in the early years, often received top billing over her brother. But when she reached marriageable age, her parents ended her musical career. She stayed at home while her father, and then her mother, traveled Europe with Wolfgang, seeking his fortune.

This is the true story Mozart’s Sister is based on. The major events of the book are taken from history, but the reasons for some of them can only be guessed at by historians, and so only guessed at by Nancy Moser. No one is sure, for example, why Nannerl’s son was left with her father during his babyhood.

Moser sets her story in the second half of the eighteenth century – really sets it. The facts of the era are put there for the reader, neither obviously nor confusingly. Little details are particularly effective at bringing the reader into the time. After going from France to England, for instance, the Mozart family buys new clothes, because their French attire stirred up war-driven prejudice against them.

I don’t often read historical novels, but I enjoyed this one. It was engagingly written in the first person and brought me straight into Nannerl’s life and heart. Her struggle with pride, limitations, dreams, disappointments – in a word, her struggle with life – is a universal story, transcending individual circumstances. There is satisfaction in our realizing – and even more in her realizing – that she had accomplishments to be proud of, different as they were from her brother’s. I hope that the real Nannerl Mozart knew what the Nannerl of this book learned – that God had something for her, too.