Commentary on Jack Vance’s work often includes mention of arcane language and highly stylized narrative techniques. Such holds true, to a degree, for criticism of The Dragon Masters, winner of a 1963 Hugo in the category of short fiction. More noteworthy is the complexity of balanced ironic polarities. The humans have been breeding dragons (Blue Horrors, Termagants, massive Juggers, and others) from basic stock, while the basics have been breeding hominid mutations (Giants, burly dwarfish Heavy Troopers, long-limbed Trackers, and others) from human stock. The careful administration of Joaz Banbeck is contrasted with the autocratic bungling of Ervis Carcolo. The sacerdotes and their self-preserving sanctity invite comparison to the striving for progress that Joaz epitomizes. Vance colors the positions so that Joaz is appealing, while the noble sacerdotes seem aloof and uncaring.
As protagonist, Joaz initially seems autocratic, bookish, and a bit of an effete aesthete. In comparison to the boorish Ervis and because of his urge for a better life for his people, however, readers become enamored of him. He is reminiscent of the title character from Vance’s Rhialto, the Marvelous (1984), a wizard and explorer of arcana who seldom is bested by his peers. The minuscule world created in this story seems marginalized, in ways similar to Vance’s “Dying World” contexts.
A theme that emerges from the ironic tensions is that little separates one position from another, that values are more similar than different. The only characteristic that makes the humans seem better than the aliens, and that also makes Joaz better than Ervis, is compassion. Joaz cares about his people, and the human breeders care about their dragons. Neither Ervis nor the basics have a shred of compassion. Ervis tries to breed abominations and abuses his troops; the basics treat the human stock as expendable machinery. When the basics send mutated human stock to discuss capitulation with the unruly humans, the exchange clarifies how alien the basics’ philosophy is to human norms. The importance of compassion is heightened by the issue of noninvolvement presented by the sacerdotes, who spitefully articulate it in a concluding conversation with Joaz.