This is my second attempt to review Joust by Mercedes Lackey. So much that I love about this book, it's hard to narrow it down. First attempt was on the use of climate, but I'm going to save that topic for a later discussion so that I can focus on the dragons right now.
Ah yes, the dragons. In this world, dragons are animals, neither good nor evil, a bit like hunting cats and falcons in temperament. They are captured as fledglings and tamed, as much as you can tame any truly wild animal, then used as aerial mounts for the Jousters. Only the berries of the tala plant, dried and ground, keep the dragons calm enough to handle, though the powder has to be given at every meal.
If it weren't for the Jousters, the war would have stayed on even footing, neither side gaining or losing ground. Alta lay in the delta of the Great Mother River. Tians coveted the rich farmland of their Altans neighbors. Most of their own land was desert, once away from the vicinity of the river. Much like Egypt.
Jousters could swoop down on enemy commanders, snatching them up, then dropping them. They could make raids on enemy troops. They provided a mobile force to guard their own troops. And then there were the Jousts, where Jouster faced enemy Jouster in the air, armed only with their wits, lances, and control over their dragons. The face off ended when one side retreated, was forced to the ground, or unseated, which meant a messy death and a dragon fleeing back to the wilds.
Too bad for the Altans that Tia had more tala, dragons, and Jousters.
All Vetch knew about the war was that much of his family's crops had gone toward the war effort. Then the Altans armies leaving the area and Tian troops moving in. And though his father's family had tilled the land for five hundred years, winning the farm from the swamp one bucketful at a time, his father was provoked into attacking a Tian officer in front of his men. Thus Vetch's father was murdered and his family made into serfs.
Bound to the land and of less value than a slave, a serf worked for whoever owned the land. A slave had value; they could be trained and sold later for more money. A serf could only be sold with the land he or she was bound to. Laws governed what could be done to a slave in regards to housing, food, clothing, and punishments. No such laws protected the serfs, prisoners of war.
Vetch toiled under Khefti-the-Fat. His master beat him for the slightest misdeed and gave him tasks better suited for a larger boy. Only Vetch's anger sustained him through the overwork, exposure, and starvation.
His life changed again because of a dragon and his Jouster. With the words, "I need a boy," the Jouster plucked Vetch from the abuse of his former master and brought him to the compound to become dragon-boy to Kashet, the Jouster's dragon. It was paradise compared to Vetch's labors under Khefti; he could eat as much as he wanted and all he had to do was care for Kashet.
He soon realized that both dragon and Jouster were unusual. Kashet had no need of tala to make him tame, capable of affection and playfulness. And Jouster Ari did things for Vetch's benefit far beyond a master's normal role, showing real concern over the boy's welfare and interest in his past, his ethics running deeper than in most warriors. It didn't take long before Vetch was devoted them both.
No longer able to hate all Tians, Vetch prayed that his people would start winning in the Jousts but that Ari and Kashet would remain safe. His primary hope was that he could learn the secret to how Kashet had been tamed and find a way to bring that knowledge back to his people. For that secret could mean Alta's salvation.
Joust is the first of four in the Dragon Jousters series, followed by Alta, Sanctuary, and Aerie. If you love dragons, I highly recommend these books. A fascinating weaving of politics, climate, and dragons, all while keeping to just the single 3rd person viewpoint of Vetch.