Dragon and Thief by Timothy Zahn
Dragon and Thief (2003, issued in trade paperback in 2016) blends dragons and space opera in an exciting middle grade science fictional adventure. The dragon in the title is Draycos, a warrior-poet of an alien species called the K’da, who are able to shift from a three-dimensional being to a two-dimensional tattoo that attaches to your skin, moving around your body at will. The K’da are also a symbiont species, requiring a host to attach themselves to at least every six hours, or they fade away and die. In return, they offer their host protection and companionship.
The K’da have been linked with the humanoid Shontine people for years, but recently both have been under attack from a vicious people called the Valahgua, who are doing their best to exterminate the K’da and the Shontine and gain control over their part of space. Fleeing the Valahgua and their powerful weapon of mass destruction, the Death, the K’da and Shontine are seeking to colonize an empty planet when they run into an enemy ambush. Draycos’ ship crashes on the planet Iota Klestis, where he is the sole survivor … but not for long, if he can’t find a new host.
Enter Jack Morgan, the 14-year-old thief ― or more accurately, reformed thief, since his Uncle Virgil, a lifelong con man and Jack’s sole family member, died and Jack decided to go straight. Before his death, Uncle Virge uploaded his personality into their shipboard computer, where his voice keeps Jack company and helps him to avoid being forced into foster care. Despite his reformed ways, Jack has been falsely accused of theft by a megacorporation, and he is temporarily hiding out on Iota Klestis while he and Uncle Virge try to figure out who has framed Jack and what they should do next. When Jack sees the wreck of Draycos’ spaceship and goes to explore it, Draycos literally leaps at the chance to adopt him as a new host. The two of them have a lot to get used to with their drastically different ways of life, but perhaps they can help each other with their respective problems.
Dragon and Thief is a fast-paced adventure, moving from spaceship to planet to spaceport and back to spaceships, with dangerous villains stalking our heroes while they try to evade capture and resolve their troubles. Jack is an enjoyable main character, quick-thinking and courageous, and Uncle Virge’s cynical virtual personality provides some humorous relief as well as adding to the tension of the story. The real star of the book, however, is clearly Draycos. Young readers will be enchanted with this fierce but noble warrior who shifts into a flat gold-and-red tattoo, and Jack and Draycos figure out some creative uses for Draycos’ unusual abilities during the course of their adventures.
Dragon and Thief is a quick read at less than 250 pages. I especially recommend it for younger teen boys, but anyone who enjoys YA space adventures is likely to appreciate this book. Even though the main character is a 14-year-old boy, Timothy Zahn writes with enough complexity to engage older readers, while keeping the plot and language clear enough that younger readers won’t get lost. While Dragon and Thief doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, not all of Jack’s and Draycos’ problems are resolved by the end of this volume, and enthusiastic readers will want to check out the remaining five books in this DRAGONBACK series.
I agree with your assessment. I read this back in 2013 (when I was clearly much older than the original demographic) and after devouring the entire series was surprised that it wasn’t more popular. I suspect it was just too early for the YA boom originally.
I am always recommending this to anyone who asks about YA books.
I love how they teach each other about different cultures and help each other cope with loss and getting through difficulties.