Joust by Mercedes Lackey
Series: Dragon Jousters #1
Published by DAW on March 2, 2004
For the first time ever, national best-selling legend Mercedes Lackey draws from her extensive knowledge of animals—and her professional background as an avian expert—to create something truly special...
The most exciting, authentic and believable portrayal of dragons ever imagined.
It is a richly conceived, fully realized vision, inspired by the culture of ancient Egypt, the legends of Atlantis-and the science of animal behavior and biology. This is how dragons would live, breed, hatch, hunt, and bond.
The first book in this thrilling new series introduces readers to a young slave who dreams of becoming a Jouster-one of the few warriors who can actually ride a flying dragon. And so, in secret, he begins to raise his own dragon.
Joust, the first book in Mercedes Lackey’s Dragon Jousters series, is a wonderfully rich re-imagining of ancient Egypt. The story follows a young serf, Vetch, as he slowly gains agency.
Vetch is an Altan serf. He became a serf when Alta lost a major war with their neighbor Tia. Vetch’s father was murdered and the rest of the family were turned into serfs and bound to the land they once owned.
As a serf – which are considered less than slaves – Vetch was severely mistreated. He was beaten, starved and overworked by his master. During one of the many miserable days in which Vetch lived this spirit-breaking life, Dragon Jouster Ari happens to see him. Ari – noticing that Vetch was being mistreated – decides to take him and make Vetch his dragon boy. Dragon boys live in a complex with their dragons, Jousters and support staff. Dragon boys were not mistreated, overworked and they were fed well and regularly. For Vetch, starved as he was, it was like he’d almost reached Heaven.
The majority of Joust focused on Vetch becoming familiar with his new duties and learning about dragons. Vetch develops a passion for dragons and eagerly wants to be like Ari, whom he respects and admires greatly. Ari is the only person to fully tame a dragon – and Vetch wants to follow in his footsteps.
Vetch eventually does get his dragon. The moment that Vetch gets his dragon is such a touching moment of triumph. It also really reminded me how young Vetch was as well as how much Vetch had endured over the course of his life.
As a single book, Joust is pretty enjoyable. The dragons are colorful and full of personality and the world that they inhabit is rich but still recognizable as an alternative Egypt. While Lackey follows her typical formula here – a young child is mistreated before being rescued and becoming an eventual hero – the world is so well done and interesting that she gets a pass from me. I have to admit that I was not surprised that this book – although clearly set in an “African” desert environment in and around the Nile River Valley – had no real POC characters (though this impression could be more related to the cover than the actual text). The Tians are described as having tan skin and straight hair. The Altans – though geographically not far from the Tians – are described as having ivory skin and straight hair. I was expecting a wide variety of skin colors from the dark brown of the Nubians to the olive hues of the Greeks since historically Egypt was known as a melting pot but I only recall the Tian brown and Altan ivory.
Being on the continent, Egypt has always been an African civilization though it straddles two regions, Africa and the Middle East. It’s fairly clear that the cultural roots of ancient Egypt lie in Africa and not in Asia. Egypt was a subtropical desert environment and its people had migrated from various ethnic groups over its history (and prehistory), thus it was something of a “melting pot,” a mixture of many types of people with many skin tones, some certainly from the Sub-Saharan regions and others from more Mediterranean climes.
–From Catchpenny.org, “What Race Were the Ancient Egyptians?“
What I enjoyed the most about Joust is the complicated emotions that Vetch had which only highlighted the political tensions between the two warring countries. In the beginning Vetch is full of anger. He watched as his father was murdered and his family ripped apart. He was constantly hungry and maltreated. Anger at the Tians was the only thing Vetch was full of. After he is saved by Ari and meets other Tians – like the Overseer Harakeet – who treat him well and respect his intelligence, Vetch finds it harder and harder to hold onto his unthinking hate of all things Tian.
The dragons play an important part in Vetch’s development. The dragon he tends, Kashet, was hand raised by Ari. Kashet is friendly and affectionate to humans – well, his humans – and quickly makes Vetch fall in love. Lackey uses Kashet and Ari to show that it is impossible for an entire country to be full of “enemies” or even those devoid of honor. Ari loves Vetch and treats him like a little brother or a son. Later, when Vetch has his own dragon, Vetch learns about unconditional love and all that it entails.
Despite any misgivings I mention above, this is a book that I’ve had the pleasure of reading on more than one occasion. Vetch, Kashet, Ari and Harakeet were extremely engaging and captivating characters that I enjoy visiting again and again.