There are no dragons in this book – well there is one, but not a significant one and it only appears on the page once, in a dream. So having got that out of the way, this is early Briggs (1995). It’s the second in her Sianim books, the first being her debut book, Masques which is so difficult to find that it’s listed at several silly prices from around $135 (so I haven’t read it yet). However not having read the first is no problem because this is a complete standalone (apparently the two books share some side characters) in which former dancer/slave, Rialla, is asked to return to the land of her slavery on an important mission for the Spymaster of the mercenary nation of Sianim.
She’s disguised as a slave to her spy-mission-partner Laeth and the big issue at first is whether she can go back to the guise of slavery and, indeed, whether, after seven years of freedom. she’s ever really left slavery behind. This is heightened by the appearance of her former slave-master and his demand (unmet) that his property be returned to him. When Laeth is accused of murder and incarcerated, help appears from a totally unexpected quarter, the somewhat hunky, but rather strange healer, Tris, who is more than he appears. He’s not-quite-human for starters. With Laeth rescued and heading back to the Spymaster with the first part of the required intelligence, it’s left up to Rialla and Tris to find the real killer and that, means Rialla is going to have to let herself fall into her former owner’s clutches again.
Patricia Briggs has learned a lot about writing since she wrote ‘Steal the Dragon’, but the early promise was definitely there and this is well worth reading. Rialla’s internal conflict about her independence and her feelings about slavery are well done and not too heavy-handed. Tris is a decent love interest – for once a hero in a fantasy novel who does not carry weapons of any kind. Rialla is the sword-wielder of the pair, though mostly the problems are solved by brain-power rather than muscle power and by some hearty running away. Nice! But the ending – the actual consummation scene between the two protagonists – is a missed opportunity to explore the last of Rialla’s relationship issues. Briggs has herself admitted that (in an online interview) but also said that – at the time – Rialla’s issues had taken her right to the edge of her (then) writing ability. Happily her abilities to bring out characters and their issues and not take the easy option have developed at a great rate (see the Mercy Thompson novels for proof of that), however I’ve caught up (retrospectively) with some other early Patricia Briggs novels and it’s fascinating to see the progressive development of a huge talent.
Oh, and Steal the Dragon is a sneaky chess-like game of skill, strategy and guile which Tris is delighted to find Rialla can not only play, but can beat him at, too.