Austar IV used to be a planet-wide penal colony, but these days it’s a gambling world—people come from all over the galaxy to bet on the dragon fights. For Jakkin Stewart, a bond servant, those fights hold his hope. He’s managed to steal a hatchling from his Master and is raising and training it in a secret desert oasis, hoping that when it’s big enough, he can take it to the fights and win enough money to buy his freedom.
First off, forgive me—I read this about a month ago, and didn’t have the time to blog it; now some of the details are fuzzy. But what really stands out as excellent is the world building. I picked up the book expecting it to be high fantasy; instead, it’s science fiction that happens to feature dragons (as well as electricity and space ships). The development of the planet is vital to the story itself. The planet was originally a penal colony, and what began as the hierarchy of guards over prisoners has, generations down the line, became a caste system. The majority of people living on the planet are bond servants—either born into the caste or they sold themselves (or were sold by a parent) into it. Bonders only serve until they’ve earned the money (an amount never specified in the book) to buy their freedom, but most seem to spend their money frivolously instead. But that’s considered acceptable—there’s no cultural shame attached to being a bonder, since it guarantees you room and board. So rather than shameful to be a bonder, it’s impressive to buy yourself out of bondage.
It’s implied that the only way—or at least, the most common or best way—to earn the money to buy yourself out is to steal a dragon egg from one of the Masters, in order to hatch, train, and raise it yourself. It’s rare that someone manages to do this (thus my assumption that it isn’t the only way, just the most notorious), and Jakkin—our hero—goes a step beyond. He’s in the infirmary when the dragons hatch and loses his chance to steal an egg, so instead manages to steal a hatchling. The book progresses almost exactly how you’d expect: he steals the dragon, trains it, has some adventures, enters his dragon in its first fight and wins dramatically. It’s a pretty simple story made interesting by the excellent world around it.
That said, the thing about the world (and the books) that mildly disturbs me is the women. We only see two in the whole book; one is the cook (a former bonder who bought her freedom), and Akki, a female bonder who befriends Jakkin, learns of his secret, and helps him keep the dragon safe. The cook is an ally herself, though she doesn’t know what he’s up to; I liked that the book went out of its way to explain that she didn’t become the cook because it was a female role, she did it because she loves cooking, she’s quite good at it, and she considers keeping the kitchen running smoothly to be an important job and worthy of respect. Cool.
But then there’s Akki, who’s an anomaly. She’s an anomaly because she’s not a whore. Everyone thinks that’s odd—because apparently all female bonders are prostitutes? The cook was when she was a bonder, and everyone is clearly amazed that Akki isn’t. There are no female bonders on the (dragon raising) farm, only boys. Which…seems really odd to me. First off, it makes no sense that half the population would do a single job that doesn’t really contribute much to society, leaving only half the population to do literally everything else; second off, how many whores does a world need? Fifty percent of the population seems like a whole lot.
That weirdness aside, Akki herself is fairly awesome. She’s level-headed and intelligent; she saves Jakkin once and acts as his nurse a few times. She helps him come up with the food he needs to feed the dragon and provides cover for him to sneak off and train the beast. And she often openly defies their Master—the rumor is that she can only do that because she’s his new mistress. Which is a disturbing rumor, as she’s only fifteen, made more disturbing when Jakkin notes that she’s been on the farm with their Master since she was twelve, and he just sort of shrugs it off because hey, some people are into that. Which is unspeakably gross. She’s not his lover, Jakkin eventually discovers—she’s his daughter. Her mother was a whore he’d fallen in love with, but she died in childbirth; Akki was raised in the brothel. He says he wants to buy her freedom and acknowledge her as his daughter, but she won’t allow it—when she assists Jakkin in a daring stunt that earns him a lot of money, she’s given half but refuses it, apparently for the same reason. She has declared she won’t take money from a man to buy her freedom, but in the meanwhile also doesn’t care what kind of orders her owner gives her and behaves as though she were free. (Jakkin notes that for sure that’s only allowed because the Master is her father.)
Okay, so the book shows an interesting relationship developing between Jakkin and Akki. After she saves him, he respects her a lot and they come to be friends and enjoy each other’s company, and he can’t decide whether or not he’s attracted to her…until the end, when he is. He wins enough money to buy his freedom, and after that, Akki’s father gives her to Jakkin, saying she needs a master. Needless to say, Akki is having none of that; she says goodbye to Jakkin and walks away, not interested in that kind of relationship at all. His reaction? To swear he won’t remove his symbol of bondage, “until he could pour out the gold from the bag into Akki’s hands and she accepted him as a master and a man.” I had been entirely indifferent to Jakkin’s character until that point—he’s a standard brave, fair-minded, determined hero type. After that? I don’t like him. Because the excellent thing about their potential relationship is that it would have been based on trust and equity, and he clearly doesn’t seem to want that; he doesn’t even want her to accept him as a lover, but specifically as her master.
This is the first book in a trilogy, so it’s entirely possible he sees the error of his ways later on. But if I ever do pick up the rest of the series, it would definitely be to read about Akki, who is intriguing and awesome, and not Jakkin, who I find to be kind of a jackass. So the book gets three cupcakes; it’s a quick, easy read, with some good set-up, but incredibly typical in terms of plot and disappointing at the end.
Tags: Jane Yolen