Brother to Dragons

by Charles Sheffield

Cover image

Publisher: Baen
Copyright: November 1992
ISBN: 0-671-72141-0
Format: Mass market
Pages: 261

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Job is born in the charity floor of a huge hospital, premature, with a deformed jaw, lung problems, and the afteraffects of his mother's addiction. From there, matters go downhill, as he's thrown into a post-apocalyptic world where the apocalypse wasn't nuclear or environmental but economic, a collapse of natural resources, economic systems, and government. The only thing he has going for him is a natural and uncanny facility for language, street-wise determination, and a fair bit of luck.

Brother to Dragons is a coming of age story in an ugly, depressing setting, without a lot of hope. The viewpoint character does, as promised by the back cover, end up changing the world in the end, but in a way that's more bittersweet than triumphant. The path along the way never rises far out of the dark underbelly of the world, and by the time Sheffield is done, one has a rather grim view of the human race.

The book is not, however, as depressing as that makes it sound, and that's mostly due to the narrative voice and Job's personality. The story makes its way through the dregs of a future world with an air of curious exploration, pausing to spend some time with the sympathetic characters Job discovers, giving him plenty of opportunities for small victories. Job is never one for moping and there's remarkably little angst, which does a lot to blunt the brutality of his surroundings. It's a bright, clear sort of story, without subtle depth but with good pacing and clear, succinct writing that keeps the pages turning quickly. There really isn't much new here — not even Job's ability with languages is handled with enough detail or realism to stand out — but Sheffield does a good job with what he's got.

Of course, as is typical in this sort of story, Job starts at the bottom of society and ends up mixing with the rich and powerful, but while there's the standard set of unbelievable coincidences and luck involved (one love affair in particular that had me going "yeah, right"), Sheffield avoids the temptation of elevating his hero beyond his personality. The weak, slightly handicapped kid doesn't miraculously outlive his life expectancy, a kid with no formal education doesn't become a ruler or famous scientist, and the twist at the end avoids a clear-cut happy ending for something with a bit more thought.

There's a lot of science fiction out there and Brother to Dragons doesn't do much to lift itself out of the pack, but it is very readable. If you're looking for a straightforward dystopian story and don't mind some unlikely coincidences, it delivers what it promises.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2005-04-01

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