Mercedes Lackey,
(DAW, 2003)

Vetch, a small Altan boy who remembers only that he's at least 10 years old, has been captured during an ongoing war between Altans and Tians. He becomes the serf of Khefti-the-Fat. Serfs have even fewer rights than slaves, and Vetch suffers greatly under his Tian master. He does the work of a grown man, yet for the flimsiest of reasons, Khefti beats him savagely and often. Joust tells the story of how Vetch is taken from the cruel overseer to become the dragon boy of jouster Ari, a skilled fighter who daily rides the dragon Kashet into combat against Vetch's countrymen. Lackey does a good job of building tension into the relationship between jouster and boy. The noble Ari has rescued Vetch from misery and treats him well, but can he be completely trusted? After all, he remains at war with the young boy's country. The question is answered by the end of the novel, but with plenty of room for a sequel if Joust is a success. In spite of weaknesses, I think it will be.

Mercedes Lackey is one of our foremost dragonologists. Among many other tasty bits, we learn how dragons mate and hatch, as well as the best ways to train and control them. Vetch's main job is to make sure Ari's mount is well tended. He bunks with the cranky (but lovable) beast, brings food in wheelbarrows, oils its skin and removes scaling that can cause itching. Lackey's prose is ordinary, but wonderfully clear. Dragon fans will enjoy the clever, detailed descriptions of their favorite fantasy creatures.

Vetch and Ari are likable, even admirable characters. I wanted to find out what would happen to them next. Most readers will also respond favorably to Joust's setting. Ancient Egypt is the model for its deserts, priests and numerous gods.

Weaknesses? Joust, though often entertaining, has the oversimplified smoothness of computer-generated cities. Plotting and character development aren't entirely convincing -- even after you accept dragons. In addition, the author has limited flair for action sequences. Perhaps because of this, the background war is seldom used effectively to increase tension or suspense and the story sometimes drags. Like so many books today, an editor would have done well to slim it down by 50 or more pages.

Nonetheless, Joust is a better than average fantasy, mostly fun to read, and a must for the many readers with a passion for imaginary, fiery beasts.

- Rambles
written by Ron Bierman
published 19 July 2003

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