Sunday, November 16, 2003

Skiffy! We got yer skiffy here!

I'm gradually becoming a big fan of science fiction author Timothy Zahn. Like most folks, I suspect, I discovered him first through his series of Star Wars novels; he was the first author in the now sprawling enterprise known as "The Extended Universe" (i.e., the post-Return of the Jedi stories). In those books, Zahn displayed a real talent for fun, zippy space opera with a dash of mystery and neat SFnal ideas, and in his non-Star Wars books, that seems to be exactly the kind of thing he writes. So if you crave SF that's fun and action-packed, Zahn's your huckleberry.

I just read his latest book, Dragon and Thief, which is subtitled "The First Dragonback Adventure". The start of a series, then: the dust jacket promises six books altogether. The title might lead one to expect a fantasy novel - - the dragon thing, you know - - but it's not. This is pure SF, and it seems to be intended for younger readers. The SF genre has really been in need of a way for adolescents to come in - - Young Adult Fantasy is in great shape these days, mainly due to the rising tide created by Harry Potter, but there hasn't been the equivalent for SF. Zahn's new series might help to fill a big hole in the SF readership.

The story involves an orphan named Jack Morgan, who is eeking out an existence in space with the help of his intelligent space ship until he's framed for a theft he didn't commit. While on the run, he comes across an alien named Draycos, who is basically a dragon. Draycos is the sole survivor of an attack on his ship, and he wants to find the beings who are killing his people (the "K'Da"). Thus, Jack and Draycos join forces for mutual benefit - - including forming a symbiotic relationship, because the K'Da must have a host or they die within six hours.

There are some nifty SF ideas in the book, including some stuff involving dimensional perception, but Zahn keeps the technobabble from overwhelming the story and characters (too bad he never wrote for Star Trek…), and in typical Zahn fashion, he keeps the story moving constantly. This is a zippy read, the kind of short and fun adventure that can really be refreshing to read. If you have a young reader in the family or you know one, here's an SF book that they will enjoy. And if you're an adult reader who needs something light and fun, this is a good choice.

A couple of provisos:

:: Dragon and Thief is the first book of a series, so not all plot threads are resolved. It ends with the kind of "open-ended closure" that you find at the conclusion of each Harry Potter book, so don't expect a total ending.

:: This book has one horrible cover. Really. I hope they get a new painting for the paperback, because the hardcover is ghastly. I seriously doubt I would have given the book a second look if I didn't know who Timothy Zahn is.

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