Before Ace finally broke down and issued a second printing in 2005, Patricia Briggs' second novel had been commanding absolutely ridiculous prices on eBay and elsewhere. One guy on alibris.com was actually asking $97.55 for a used copy! Good lord. If I'm going to shell out that kind of coin for a book, it better come in a leatherbound, slipcased, Smythe-sewn edition with a personal masseuse to give me rubdowns while I read it. And it wouldn't hurt if the book were really, really good, to boot. Which Steal the Dragon isn't, sorry to say.
There are things about this novel to like, don't get me wrong. As do so many female fantasists, Briggs shows a deft hand in establishing her heroine, imbuing her with the right combination of strengths and weaknesses to elicit maximum sympathy from readers. Briggs' plot, on the other hand, is riddled with enough holes in logic that it's hard to pinpoint which one is letting in the most breeze.
Rialla is a horse-trainer in the "mercenary city-state" of Sianim. Seven years previously, she was a slave in the kingdom of Darran, and has been trying to put this past behind her. She is also an empath, with the ability to draw power from the emotions of those around her — though this talent was seriously damaged by her years as a slave.
The story begins as she is offered the job of heading back into Darran as a spy, in the guise of a slave once more, and in the company of Laeth, the black sheep son of Darranian Lord Karsten. See, there is an aggressive eastern empire heading everyone's way, conquering as they go under the leadership of a mysterious charismatic magician calling himself the Eye of Altis (Altis being a rather insouciant god in the pantheon of Briggs' world). The only way to resist this invasion effectively is if Darran allies with a neighboring kingdom with whom they have long been adversaries — and it even appears as if Karsten is willing to abolish slavery in Darran to sweeten the deal. But there is evidence that someone wishes to undermine all of this, possibly even to assassinate Karsten. And it will be Laeth and Rialla's job to find out whom.
Okay, interesting premise — but the story is problematic from the get-go in that Briggs has Rialla agree all too easily to the job. The possibility of staving off the invasion, which actually provides almost none of the novel's flimsy sense of conflict as it wears on, is offered as less of an incentive to her than the altruistic motive of helping to rid Darran of slavery. But Briggs just doesn't sell that enough. It's never fully convincing that Rialla would expose herself to her previous nightmare life (and possible criminal charges, as she killed a man in her escape) for the tossed-off reasons provided. Or at least, not without much more inner conflict than Briggs chooses to depict.
In any event, Rialla and Laeth make it to Darran, and sure enough, a couple of attempts on Karsten's life are made, the second of which is successful. Rialla is also almost killed in the attack, by a monster drawn to her empathic powers. But she is healed by Tris, the local healer who is also a magically gifted member of the sylvan race (I dunno, think elves, I suppose). Tris's ministrations also bring about a restoration of Rialla's empathic powers.
Rialla and Tris suspect Karsten's murderer is not only Rialla's former owner, the loathsome (but could have been much more so) Lord Winterseine, but there's a good chance Winterseine is also this Eye of Altis chap fomenting the invasion. Winterseine is obviously planning a coup in Darran. If there is some way to expose Winterseine as Karsten's killer (Laeth has been framed for it), there still might be time to ensure the alliance.
In all fantasies, it is important for the author to establish firm rules regarding the world of the story, and dammit, stick to them. Briggs stumbles here badly, being wildly inconsistent about Tris's use of magic. For instance, in one scene Tris is shown using "sylvan roads" to cover in mere hours massive distances that would take a man on horseback a whole day. But when a crisis happens and he must reach Rialla desperately... he takes a horse!?
Briggs also ends up clouding Winterseine's intentions in utter confusion, so much so that at one point it appears as if his plans will actually go against his own interests.
But the novel's most startling inconsistency actually undermines Rialla's character, her motivations, what has driven her to undertake this whole crazy quest (which, as you will recall, Briggs never really made all that convincing). Massive spoilers follow: Rialla is supposedly motivated by a desire to see Darran abolish slavery, and her main character arc throughout the story involves her overcoming the years of conditioning that have led her to think of herself as "once a slave, always a slave" and see herself as a free woman. Fine. And in the final scene, when a character explains how wonderful life would be under Altis's divine rule, she announces that slavery is still slavery whether the slave is well-treated or not. The most important thing in life is free choice. But... it turns out that, while healing her, Tris, in an impetuous act of love for which he is in fact remorseful, bonded Rialla to him for life using his magic! Here is the scene where Tris confesses to Rialla.
She stared at him. "You mean we're married, and you didn't tell me?"
She surprised a laugh out of him. "I suppose you could look upon it so, yes."
"Why did you do it?" she asked.
..."I did it because I finally found someone with whom I could belong.... I'm sorry."
Deep in her own thoughts, Rialla only dimly heard him continue. "I thought at first that I could break the link, if you didn't want it. It isn't supposed to strengthen as fast as it did. In the old days, when my people were many, the initial ceremony lasted for three months. If the couple were unwilling to continue so bound, the link was removed. Trenna told me we could bond. She didn't say that you'd be willing."
Rialla remember the things she'd learned about him last night, remembered the soul-eating loneliness and found its echo in herself. If she'd known of such a bond, she would have moved mountains to achieve it. When she considered it, the bond didn't frighten her — not at all. She hugged her reply to herself for a moment, then said softly, "I'm not."
"I know," said Tris, misunderstanding....
"No," said Rialla, lifting her face so he could see her smile. "I meant that I'm not sorry, not that I'm not willing."
Is this the same woman who, only one page previously, was telling the villian, "I will never willingly be a slave again...I would die first"? After all, it doesn't matter that she's willing now, or even that, if he'd asked her at the time, she'd have said yes. What matters is that Tris, in essense, enslaved her. He forged the bond without her consent or even her knowledge. And that's what you call enslaving someone. Simple as that. The narrative mistake Briggs has made here cannot be understated. In her desire to have her novel's love story turn out all happy, she has literally negated her heroine's triumphant completion of her character arc in the space of only one page! The degree of fail is staggering.
Addendum: In 2008, Ace reissued this title yet again, disposing of the evocative Luis Royo cover and replacing it with Generic Paranormal Romance Cover #36,212. Which basically means the only legitimate reason anyone still had to buy a copy is now gone.