Thanks to Jack Vance, my early teens were haunted by dragonish monstrosities with such names as Termagants, Striding Murderers, Juggers, and Blue Horrors.

These weren’t drawn from a young adult story, but from one of Vance’s most concentrated, intensely imagined and effective evocations of a place and above all, a society, very remote from ours, in time, space, and mindset. “The Dragon Masters” was one of the classics that consolidated his early reputation, and it has worn very well with time.

Note that this book is an example of how mutable the standards of story length can be, as well as the new possibilities of separate publication created by the e-book. It originally won a Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1963, and is actually of novella length, but is now published separately as an e-book by Spatterlight Press as part of the superlative Vance Digital Edition of the complete works of Jack Vance.

At $4.99, it’s your call if you consider the price worth spending on a standalone title—I certainly would.

If you do want to be sure before you buy, the Wikipedia entry on the book describes it in exhaustive detail, far more than I need to go into here. Briefly, far in the future on the distant planet of Aerlith, which might perhaps be the last free human world left in the cosmos, an isolated colony of humans, long regressed to powder-and-shot technology, fights a protracted war with far more advanced aliens called grephs, who occasionally visit Aerlith to harvest slaves.

Both species have bred their captives from the other side into many varieties, specialized for different purposes and especially for warfare, and the aloof and highly evolved greph “Basics” have been remolded into the savage breeds of dragons, which the humans wield as troops to fight against each other, and eventually against their progenitors.

Unlike many other sci-fi stories from its period, there are no jarring technological anachronisms to make the tale seem dated. Rather, Vance puts all his energy into conjuring up the harsh and combative world of the Aerlith humans, not to mention the subterranean cult of the Sacerdotes, who hide their own secrets crucial to the plot’s denouement.

The humans finally triumph and gain access to a greph starship, but there is no suggestion that they are going to reconnect with more modern styles of society and lose their own terms of cultural reference: Vance never implies that their worldview is somehow subordinate to ours. “The Dragon Masters” is one of the best distillations of his peculiar strengths, and a great, short, intense read.

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Jack Vance

Buy “The Dragon Masters” from Spatterlight Press ($4.99)


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