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Monday, July 14, 2008

Dragon and Judge: The Fifth Dragonback Adventure

Dragon and Judge: The Fifth Dragonback Adventure

Timothy Zahn

Publisher: Starscape; 1st edition (May 29, 2007)

ISBN-10: 0765314185

Dragon and Judge is the fifth book in Timothy Zahn’s Dragonback series. The basic conceit of the series is fairly straightforward; young Jack Morgan is an orphan being raised by his Uncle Virge, a rogue and conman in the tradition of Han Solo, but without the redeeming features. Jack’s life gets turned around drastically when he ends up rescuing the last survivor of a ruined K’da expedition. The K’da are a race of warrior poets who need to exist in a symbiotic relationship with a host in order to survive. Draycos, the aforementioned survivor of the crash, bonds to Jack, and the two of them find themselves on the run, and trying to figure out what happened to Draycos’s people, and why. Later books in the series introduced other recurring characters, most notably Alison Kanya, a female counterpart to Jack who, at the end of the last book, acquired her own symbiote named Taneem, after Draycos’s departed love.

Dragon and Judge takes the series for an interesting turn of events, when Jack decides, against the advice of Uncle Virge, to go investigate something on the planet where his parents died. Naturally, the circumstances of his parents’ death are a bit more mysterious than Jack was initially lead to believe, and he quickly finds himself drawn into that mystery. Allison, for her part, is separated from Jack through unforeseen circumstances, bringing her back into contact with some old villains, and allowing her to dig up some clues about the big plot that has hovered in the background of the series for so long.

Like the other Dragonback books, this one is filled with a lot of intrigue and suspense; despite the title, there’s surprisingly little “judging” done by Jack, at least, not in a literal sense. Frankly, I was fine with that—Zahn shows enough of the judging Jack has to do to make it clear what his role is, and then backburners those scenes in favor of moving the action and story forward. The main characters all get to do some interesting personal evolution along the way. It’s not perfect—there’s a character introduced in the middle that takes an odd turn in the cliffhanger—but overall, I think it’s a solid, fun, space-opera kind of romp. I’m having fun reading it, and it’s the sort of thing I’d be happy to read with a kid, if I had one to read it too.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Prydain Chronicles

The Prydain Chronicles
Lloyd Alexander
I just finished listening to this series on Audiotape (no, that is not a typo—I own this on a series of cassettes), and since I failed to review it as I was listening, I thought I’d make some commentary about it now that I’m done.

The Prydain Chronicles consists of a series of five novels (Book of Three, Black Cauldron, Castle of Lyr, Taran Wanderer, High King) that follow the adventure of an “assistance pig-keeper” Taran, and his varied companions throughout the land of Prydain. The series is heavily influenced by Welsh mythology, but apparently departs from it in certain notable ways (not being at all familiar with Welsh mythology, I cannot speak to how and when it departs). The series is aimed at a younger audience, but there is a level of violence and gore that makes the series probably quite inappropriate for younger children. The first two books were mashed together into a Disney film at one point, which I have never seen (and will pass on, thank you very much). I assume Disney omitted the people being burned alive inside wicker baskets, though I could be wrong.

While all of the characters get some kind of development in the series, the books are really primarily about Taran, and the process of him growing up and becoming a man. The other characters serve as support, role models, flavor, comic relief, or some combination thereof, but they are never as important as Taran himself. Of all of the characters, only Faithful Gurgi shares as much “screen time” as Taran, and he doesn’t get nearly the development that Taran does (though, not being human, I think he can be forgiven).

This is actually the second time I have listened to this series in recent years, though I don’t seem to have recorded my thoughts on it the first time, so I can’t be sure what I’ve already said, if anything. In any case, I think it’s a marvelous series; the writing is brisk, vivid, and intense. The characters are interesting, the plot generally gripping, and the world that Lloyd Alexander creates is a fascinating one. Frankly, I’m kind of surprised this hasn’t been optioned into a Lord of the Rings style modern fantasy movie series, because holy crap, it would work perfectly. Some of Alexander’s descriptions are vivid enough that they damn near function as staging directions.

I find myself thinking about this series in comparison with the Harry Potter series, mostly, I think, because it’s two stories about a boy growing up. That’s really where the similarities diverge, however. I’ve been working to quantify exactly how, and so far, this is the best I’ve come up with.

Harry Potter is a modern-day book; it’s about a boy who is told, from very early on, that he is, in fact, special. That he has a special destiny, and that when he grows up, he’s going to do something amazing. The series is very much about Harry struggling with the high expectations everyone has of him, and trying to figure out how to deal with that. He struggles with the consequences of fame, of being the powerful, but not always cool, kid. As I think of it, a lot of Harry Potter is about a kid dealing with a kid’s world, where as the Prydain Chronicles are about a boy dealing with a man’s world.

Taran doesn’t know of any special destiny he has on him, but he thinks he wants one. He thinks he wants to be a great warrior, and a famous hero. In a way, he wants what Harry Potter has (and what kid doesn’t, on some level), but he doesn’t have it. He’s just a lowly “assistant pig-keeper” (a title given to him in jest by his mentor Coll), who appears to have no special destiny at all. Of course, that isn’t quite true, but Taran doesn’t know that. What he does find, as he grows older, is that adventure and heroism are not all they are cracked up to be, and that being a good and responsible human being is harder than it seems.

I need more time and coffee to really think about this, but I think there’s definitely a bit of a generation gap between the two books, and it shows in the kind of problems that the characters face and deal with. It’s interesting, even if I haven’t full fleshed it out yet. I’ll get there. Or I won’t.

Also, the audio versions are great. James Langston, the reader, does a fantastic job, and you actually get to hear Lloyd Alexander read the author’s notes himself.