Jack Vance’s The Dragon Masters

Dragon Masters

All those Vance books on the shelf. Staring at me, eyeless. Somehow judging me, despite lack of faculty. Beckoning. Tantalizing.

So I finally read The Dragon Masters, a title I’ve seen recommended a number of times now. It wasn’t my favorite Vance work, but it was a Vance work. In other words, I devoured it over the course of 3 sittings and it was quite a fun read. Doesn’t hurt that it was only ~140 pages of lean prose.

The Dragon Masters tells the story of a feudalistic world, most likely one of the last of a once great human empire, periodically attacked by a race of reptilian aliens from another star. These aliens, the Basics, as they are called, have been wiping out the worlds of men, enslaving and selectively breeding humanity into different castes of soldiers and servants.

On Aerlith, however, the tables have been somewhat turned. In a failed Basic raid, a daring ruler was able to capture a number of the Basics, which have since been bred into a number of distinct creatures used as thralls.

The different types of “dragons,” as they are usually called, are not explicitly described in lengthy info dumps, but various scenes flesh out their roles and characteristics. From Wikipedia:

Breeds include:

  • Termagants – these are closest to the Basics in size. They are tough, reproduce quickly, and can be trained to use pistol, sword and mace. They are usually the biggest component of a Dragon army. The color of their scales is rusty-red.[1]

  • Murderers – these come in two varieties, known as Striding and Long-horned. They are not described in detail, except to note that the Long-horned variety has a horn growing from the midsection, although another part of the story implies that there are horns on the head as well. Murderers seem to be used as shock troops. The color of their scales is brown.

  • Fiends – these are squat, powerful beasts that can fight with sword and mace, but also have a heavy spiked ball at the end of a tail. This can be swung from side to side. It is particularly effective against Juggers if the Fiend can employ it between the Jugger’s legs. The color of their scales is black-green.

  • Blue Horrors – these are agile beasts equipped with pincers enabling them to dismember an opponent. The color of their scales is toxic-blue.

  • Juggers – these are much larger than all the other Dragon breeds. They can use large hand weapons, but they are slow and ponderous. They are also hard to breed, so an army will have relatively few Juggers. However they can be extremely effective in the right situation, being able to pick up opponents and tear them apart. The color of their scales is grey.

  • Spiders – these are bred to be large and fast enough to carry a human rider. The name implies that they use all available limbs for running. A high status individual such as Ervis Carcolo rides a beast that has been heavily decorated and is well-disciplined.

Quite interesting, and as I was reading it occurred to me how this was just begging for a tabletop (or video game) strategy game adaptation. Throw in the Basics and their mess of human slaves and you’ve got two separate armies!

I’m not the first to observe that The Dragon Masters, written in 1963, shares many elements with Anne McCaffrey’s Pern stories, which were written several years later. I do find it a little suspect that McCaffrey doesn’t ever seem to have acknowledged Vance as an inspiration, nor did she even list him among her recommended authors. But hey, maybe the similarities are a coincidence.

Speaking of Pern, I found Vance’s dragon story to be a lot more of a page-turner. Where Vance has a tendency to gloss over his characters, favoring the development of exotic worlds and strange cultures and technologies, McCaffrey spent a lot of ink developing characters who, quite frankly, I didn’t wind up caring that much for.

Both stories revolve around “dragons” engineered for use by humanity, but I found the variety of The Dragon Masters a lot more imaginative. I’m sure McCaffrey’s psychic companions appeal to many readers (or the series surely wouldn’t have achieved such success), but at least in the first book the only real differences between the beasts are their sizes and colors (of which there aren’t even that many).

Vance’s use of astronomical signs pointing to a recurring otherwordly invasion was also more skillfully executed. In Dragonflight, most of the story is buildup to an invasion without any real foes. The dragons and their riders wind up “fighting” a rain of deadly threads from the sky. Interesting, but not very menacing or emotionally driving.

In The Dragon Masters, the Basics and their slaves present very real and very alien antagonists.

Also Dragonflight gets mixed up with time travel. Yuck.

In conclusion, I don’t think I’d recommend The Dragon Masters as an entry point into Vance’s work, just because The Dying Earth is so mindblowing and Planet of Adventure is so much fun. But if you picked this one up off the shelf having never read any of his stuff before, there’d still be a good chance you’d get hooked.


Leave a Reply