A Locked Room

Telling a story longer than one episodeHere’s a mission: write a series for young adults that is six books long, competes with all the digital distractions of current life, and keeps the kids coming back for each new entry. Sounds hard! A lot of series break down just on the issue of writing sequels that don’t suck.

Timothy Zahn is five books into his Dragonback series; I’ve read four, and Zahn comes pretty close to pulling off what sounds like an impossible mission.

It helps that Dragon and Thief, the first book in the series, is fantastic. Jack Morgan is a fourteen-year-old boy, and the thief of the title. He and his Uncle Virgil criss-cross the galaxy, pulling scams, raking in the bucks, and stealing from the unwary. One day, they are hiding out on what seems like uninhabited planet, and they witness a tremendous space battle in the skies above. Jack goes to investigate the crash and discovers that one lifeform has survived.

That lifeform is a K’da named Draycos — and here is where Zahn comes up with a concept that drives almost all of the action of the series. These aliens, the K’da, are a dragon-like species (which supplies the other half of the title of the first book), and they need a host to survive. Hey, you there, thief boy, could this be your lucky day? The K’da can take a three-dimensional form for about six hours, but then they need to recuperate by taking a two-dimensional form on the host’s skin, like a living tattoo.

Having a hidden ally like this would be great for thieving, except for the fact that Draycos and his people are in deep trouble and Jack reluctantly goes along with the idea of helping his newfound friend. The overarching storyline has the two facing incredible odds: a very determined group of foes want to wipe out the K’da, and Jack and Draycos can’t trust anyone. It’s a great setup, and while Draycos has amazing abilities, the forces arrayed against them are far more powerful.

Telling a story longer than one episodeSo: a first book that has some interesting ideas, tells the story at a fast pace, and sets up a big goal for the protagonists. What next?

The second book, Dragon and Soldier, features an infiltration mission. Jack poses as a kid being indentured (essentially sold by non-existent parents) into a mercenary group. He and Draycos want access to the mercs’ records in order to find out who had been hired to wipe out the K’da in that battle in the first book. The book is structured a bit like a locked room puzzle; Jack and Draycos throws themselves into a situation to find out some information, but then find that they can’t get out of it. Their attempts to escape the mercenary group become the biggest part of the plot, never mind the need to hack the computers and find out the big secret.

Spoiler warning! Jack’s mission doesn’t go so well, and while the two heroes escape with their lives, they have no new information. That’s how book three, Dragon and Slave, starts off, and I was getting a little annoyed with the series because this time around, Jack becomes a slave to find some new information. It’s the same locked room — it’s slavery rather than military life, but the plot feels very similar. Had Zahn screwed up the series already?

I should have had more faith in Zahn. After all, this is writer of one of my favourite set of books, the Conqueror series. The first book in that trilogy tells of desperate human attempts to fight against some terrifying aliens. The second book switches viewpoint entirely to show what the aliens are doing, and then the third book shifts into a mix of the two where the true struggle takes shape. It’s one of the most cleverly structured series I’ve encountered — not many writers think so strategically at the level of pitting one book against another, so to speak.

And that’s precisely how the books two and three of the Dragonback series function. Zahn wants to show how high the odds are stacked against Jack and Draycos, so he dedicates an entire book to failure! In fact, book two is a giant step back for them, since they have a time limit before another group of K’da are wiped out. Now they have less time to save Draycos’ people.

Worse, book three starts down the same path of failure. Life as a slave is not particularly conducive to finicky computer hacking. A giant clue lands in their lap at the very end of the book, in a moment that Zahn uses to reinforce a theme about mercy and honour that cropped up, as if by accident, in the opening chapters of the first book. Again, clever stuff.

Like I said, I’ve just finished reading book four, Dragon and Herdsman, a book which takes the series in a slightly different direction, with some revelations about the K’da species. It’s another locked room, since Jack and Draycos are stranded on a planet and can’t continue their quest until they can escape. At least the battle lines are much clearer. I’m curious to see if the last two books measure up; if they do, it’s because of the carefully-laid groundwork in the first four books.

* January 2009 update: I’ve finished reading the fifth and sixth books in the series. I was confused! *

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