It’s dress rehearsal week for Guys and Dolls at my local community theater so I’m going to be busy as a one legged man in an . . . well, you know. I’ll hopefully get back to my Anne McCaffrey posts next week. Dragonsdawn is on deck.
I’m skipping over Dragonsdawn for now for reasons I explain in my previous post. The story of The Renegades of Pern happens over all the years of the original trilogy but with the bulk of it spanning the four or five years leading up to and including The White Dragon.
When I was a kid I ate this book up. Having finished reading it a few weeks ago (yes, I’m behind on these posts, but I’m not letting myself start Dragonsong until I get caught up again!), I’m now of the opinion that Renegades, while a perfectly cromulent novel that is quite engaging and does flow smoothly, is the weakest of the Main Sequence.
This time I think McCaffrey tried to do too much with one book.
Renegades is a story of the poor, outcast, and downtrodden inhabitants of Pern, precisely the type of people that you don’t see much of in the first three novels. The prologue is a collection of ten vignettes that introduce most of the key “renegades” and how they fall on hard times even before the first Thread Fall of this Pass. The final vignette (and therefore the most important) introduces Thella, the ambitious and competent (but not at all a people-person!) older sister of Lord Larad of Telgar Hold who believes she should have been confirmed Lady Holder in his place. Larad informs her that she’s to be married off which, of course, she disagrees with. Vehemently. Instead subjecting herself to such a fate she leaves Telgar hold in secret with some supplies and a plan to become a Holder in her own right.
Thella is without question the Hero of her own story. Indeed, most of Renegades can be read as a story where Thella is the protagonist, albeit as an anti-hero. She knows exactly what she wants–a hold in her own name– and sets out to get it. The unexpected return of Thread temporarily throws off her schedule but she adapts and starts recruiting a band of followers who can help her acquire all that she needs, if by other, less legitimate means.
She achieves most of those objectives through well planned and daring raids on smaller holds and habitations throughout the northern continent. She is so successful that several Lords of major Holds and more than a couple Weyrleaders regularly meet for skull-sessions on how to curtail Thella’s activities. Masterharper Robinton even assigns a journeyman from his Hall to infiltrate the band of renegades: an accomplished portrait artist who manages to leave packets of sketches in strategic locations.
Early in the story Thella visits one of the characters from the prologue who tells her of young girl who is able to hear dragons. Thella immediately concludes that having a person with that ability within her control would be immeasurably useful for better avoiding detection and patrols while on her raids and begins planning the girl’s abduction.
Now, I’d like to point out that even my middle-school-aged self noticed a few holes in that plot. Namely: what’s to stop the girl from calling for help at the earliest opportunity or, at the very least, deliberately providing false information to the bandits at an appropriate time? Nevertheless Thella puts kidnapping Aramina at the top of her To-Do list.
If I’m sticking with the idea that Thella is the protagonist of her story then it’s interesting to note that said story follows the tried and true Try/Fail structure (which I first encountered explicitly in this Writing Excuses podcast). I was pleased to see that McCaffrey had also seen the gaping holes in Thella’s reasoning and has the first two abduction attempts ultimately fail. The second attempt was arguably better executed than the first but Aramina is soon rescued by young Jayge whom we met way back in the first chapter. At this point the two young people decide to disappear.
Unaccountably, so does Thella. And it’s only page 216– the end of chapter nine.
Chapter ten opens one page turn and two years later with news of the theft of the Queen egg by the Oldtimers. Or in other words, about a third of the way into The White Dragon. At least this time we get to see these events as they affect other viewpoints, specifically Holder Toric and young harper Piemur on the Southern Continent.
This is where Renegades starts morphing into a different book. At the time it was published Dragonsdawn had already come out. I’m willing to bet that McCaffrey had also written a draft of All the Weyrs of Pern or at the very least had a detailed outline done before even writing Renegades. I say this because it seems like she knew exactly how to get through the end of White Dragon and to the ultimate finale of the series in All the Weyrs but needed a way to fill in the gap. The transition in Renegades isn’t quite as abrupt as it probably seems from this post because McCaffrey did weave in some of the Southern story bits through the first section but the shift was noticeable this read-through.
In any case we get to see Piemur’s take on Jaxom’s illness, the arrival of Robinton at Cove Hold, and the initial investigation of the colonists’ Landing site. In The White Dragon Piemur never mentions his encounter with Jayge and Aramina (they’d taken work trading animals to Southern Hold but gotten shipwrecked by a storm, fortunately washing up at the ruins of a colonist’s habitation which they set to work restoring) during his exploration of the coastline. The justifications he makes up for not revealing their survival until after the events of White Dragon conclude shows that this is a clear retcon.
It’s still the 15th year of the present Pass when White Dragon ends and word starts to filter north of the new Hold established by Jayge and Aramina. Thella appears out of nowhere to hear this on page 314 and begin plotting anew. She’s had a few setbacks of her own and so takes rather a long time to prepare for a final attempt at Aramina. . .
. . . because the next chapter (14 for those following along at home) flies us through two more years of excavations and discoveries at Landing. The most important of these are the evacuation plans the colonists used to move from the Landing site to the Northern Continent when the volcano they’d been living under blew its top. Those plans included labelled maps that provide the key for making more targeted excavations than had been the practice to that point.
But not before Thella and a new band of thugs make their way to Jayge and Aramina’s new place. This final showdown is pretty epic: dragons are called, resourcefulness is shown, guard dogs are hidden in a tree, and Jayge defeats Thella in single combat on page 360. Now, from Thella’s point of view that’s probably not a great ending for her story but Jayge is actually the Good Guy™ not her, so tough luck.
That’s also not the end of Renegades. Yet. Back at Landing Piemur’s new girlfriend follows a hunch and gathers enough help to excavate the building marked ADMIN/AIVAS because the map also mentioned the extra measures the colonists had taken to protect that particular building. Once they get through the layer of ash they notice that the structure had been covered in tiles similar to the ones covering the underside of the remaining shuttles. They’re obviously an ad hoc attempt to protect against heat damage and so they methodically begin to remove them, uncovering black glass panels not seen at any other location they’d investigated.
Soon after they find the building’s entrance and make their way inside where they encounter the Artificial Intelligence Voice Address System. Their meticulous excavation of the solar panels allowed AIVAS to charge its batteries and return to operational status for the first time in twenty-five centuries. Hey, a technological civilization advanced enough to colonize other planets can certainly design hardware hardy enough to survive centuries of inactivity, right? Anyway, once AIVAS works through the lingual shift and the inconvenient fact that the last authorized users died twenty-five hundred years ago it treats those present to a full audio-visual rendition of How It All Began.
Which is exactly the story told in Dragonsdawn.
The Renegades of Pern is by no means a bad book. With more than twenty years of writing behind her at the time Renegades is published, McCaffrey just doesn’t do “bad” anymore (if ever). I do think it’s obvious that Renegades is one and a half stories, though. The whole story was the raison d’être for this book but the half story is what needed to be told to set up the grand finale in All the Weyrs of Pern. Fortunately that grand finale is a doozy and I can’t wait to get to its post!
When I first started contemplating this post a week or two ago I was nigh on angsting over it. As I write this tonight I’m wondering why I was making such a fuss.
Ordinarily I am a steadfast advocate of reading series in publication order rather than series-chronological order (e.g. The Magician’s Nephew is the SIXTH volume of the Chronicles of Narnia, NOT the first. It says so right on the cover of my copy!). Even if a prequel shows up at some point both the reader and the author are heavily influenced by all the information conveyed by the series up to that point. In a prequel a writer often doesn’t make the same effort to describe the setting or politics or magic or technology, etc. of their world from scratch because so much of that effort has already been spent in the books already published. Asking a neophyte to begin with a later novel, even if a prequel, risks confusing and discouraging that reader because they won’t have the same fluency in the series that a veteran reader would. I won’t say that this can’t be handled properly by a skilled writer but it is certainly a risk. In the same way a skilled writer should avoid writing a prequel with the neophyte as their sole anticipated audience because all the necessary scene setting and exposition that a neophyte frankly needs risks reading like a “Remedial [Series] for Dummies” to the veterans. Although, again, this unfortunate outcome can be averted by a skilled author.
Happily, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern books fit together perfectly in publication order. It seems my angst was the result of misremembering that publication order before I started looking into it closely.
However! If I were to recommend an optimal order in which to read these marvelous books . . . Wait. What’s this “if” business? I AM recommending an optimal order! Ahem. I think it’s best to read this series in publication order but with TWO real exceptions and an option for the Harper Hall trilogy. This is because to my way of thinking there is the Main Sequence, the Harper Hall trilogy, and then everything else (which I’ll just call Ancillary here). So here we go! (I’ll update the links to the proper re-read posts as I continue this little project)
- Dragonflight (1968)
- Dragonquest (1971)
- OPTIONAL: Harper Halltrilogy -
- Dragonsong (1976)
- Dragonsinger (1977)
- Dragondrums (1979)
- The White Dragon (1978)
- The Renegades of Pern (1989)
- Exception (minor): Dragonsdawn (1988)
- All the Weyrs of Pern (1991)
Those are the books of the Main Sequence and the Harper Hall trilogy. Dragonsdawn is the odd duck in the list for two reasons, the more trivial reason being that it was published in the year before Renegades yet I think it fits better when read immediately after. More importantly, Dragonsdawn is a prequel. It is, in fact, the story of the very first humans to colonize the planet some twenty-five hundred years earlier in the timeline. It fits best between Renegades and All the Weyrs because Renegades ends with the discovery of the Landing site and the uncovering of a still-functional AI computer system. On the final page of Renegades the AI begins to recount the colonists’ early history to its awestruck audience . . . And finishes that retelling in the opening pages of All the Weyrs. Dragonsdawn is that story. When I read in this order it’s like watching a grand cinematic flashback before coming back to end the series with the bang that is All the Weyrs.
The Harper Hall trilogy was written and even takes place between the events of Dragonquest and The White Dragon and so can be read in this position. The reason I read these later is because to me they are their own self contained story. They are also explicitly Young Adult books written especially for McCaffrey’s teenage readership. I’d argue that a neophyte can also comfortably wait to read these after the Main Sequence with the only difficulty being the otherwise unexplained appearance of Menolly and Piemur (the protagonists of the trilogy) as Jaxom’s close friends in The White Dragon. I’ve even seen (and can almost agree with) the trilogy recommended as an alternate entry point for the series as a whole. The reason I say “almost” is because Dragonsinger comprehensively spoils the big climax of Dragonquest (F’nor and Canth’s jump to and from the Red Star). I think Dragonsinger is a brilliant reaction to that event from Menolly’s point of view but can take away from the impact if it’s the first version a reader encounters. Menolly only experiences that event at second or third hand, F’nor and Canth are the primary actors there and their story is told in Dragonquest.
Enough talk, on to the Ancillary books! First is the other exception to publication order:
- Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern (1983)
- Nerilka’s Story (1986)
These two books take place in the Main Sequence’s past and tell the story of how the people of Pern had to come together to overcome a plague that was running rampant through Hold, Hall, and Weyr in the midst of a Pass of the Red Star. These events are referenced in the Main Sequence as the “Ballad of Moreta’s Ride” but are never fully described. My memory of these two is almost completely gone at this point because I didn’t revisit them near as often as the others.
And all the others:
- The Chronicles of Pern: First Fall (1993) – a collection of short stories that take place in the years immediately after Dragonsdawn
- The Dolphins of Pern (1994)
- The Skies of Pern (2001)
There are at least a few others, including the books McCaffrey co-wrote with her son Todd, but they won’t be part of this re-read since I never got around to them in the first place.
I’ve also got two more books that I’m holding back as a surprise because they’re not Pern novels but they are two of my prized possessions. But you’re just going to have to wait for those!
The White Dragon was Anne McCaffrey’s first novel to hit the Best Sellers list. I’m convinced that it was due entirely to that spectacular cover! Well, maybe just mostly due. It is a dang good book after all.
Once again McCaffrey changes up the format and uses a different plot structure than either of the two preceding volumes. The White Dragon is a straight up Bildungsroman (or Coming of Age story since I need to get in the obligatory tvtropes.org link (and the Death by Newbery Medal page linked there is a hoot, too!)). There’s no overarching quest that Jaxom must accomplish although he does manage to single-handedly avert a war between two factions of dragonriders. This novel simply follows the young Lord Holder as he navigates the treacherous path from adolescence to adulthood.
My copy is 467 pages long so I’m not even going to try to recap it to the same level of detail as I did the first two books but I would hope that for this one I really shouldn’t have to. [NOTE from final proofreading: I totally failed miserably.] Being a textbook example of a Coming of Age story doesn’t mean that it’s cliched or bad– quite the contrary!
Jaxom is the young Lord Holder of Ruatha Hold who unwittingly Impressed the runt-ish white dragon Ruth back in Dragonquest. Any teen would face additional stresses while growing up if they were a hereditary ruler or if they had to take care of and live with and grow with a creature to whom they’re strongly bonded both mentally and emotionally. Jaxom is both.
On the political side he’s been the Lord of Ruatha since moments after his birth when F’lar killed his father Fax in a duel (at the beginning of Dragonflight). It may be a position of privilege but even as he’s groomed for it he finds the requirements and duties and expectations suffocating. Those expectations lay heaviest because his guardian, the Lord Warder Lytol is an extremely competent administrator of the Hold, is respected by every other Hold, Hall, and Weyr, and is the closest thing to a father that Jaxom has. Lytol is also emotionally distant because he was once a dragonrider himself whose blue dragon died from injury years before. Surviving and functioning after losing one’s dragon is vanishingly rare, most riders suicide under those circumstances.
Jaxom must also care for and work with the white Ruth who was not expected to live very long when he hatched. It is now roughly seven years later and Ruth has not only survived, he has thrived. He’s still very much a runt at half the size of the next smallest dragon and of an unprecedented color which leads to many people treating him as a freak. Jaxom doesn’t appreciate that at all. Things at least start looking up when he gets to ride Ruth in flight for the first time in the opening chapter. However, the additional freedom of movement comes with some complications of its own.
While Jaxom may ride Ruth with official blessing, as a Lord Holder he is discouraged from even thinking about fighting Thread on Ruth. But fighting Thread is what dragons do! And thus Jaxom rails against yet another stupid restriction. N’ton, the Weyrleader at Fort, is at least pragmatic about his dilemma: “Just don’t let anyone catch you trying to teach Ruth to chew firestone!”
Ruth does possess at least one bona fide talent: he has the best time sense of any dragon. That is, he always knows when in time he is. This comes in handy because early in the book when the exiled Oldtimers who had been stewing in their own bitterness in the Southern Continent (and causing all kinds of problems for the growing Hold there) steal a hardening Queen egg right off of the Benden Weyr hatching ground sands. Within hours it mysteriously reappears in its proper place thereby obviating the punitive raid being contemplated by the Benden riders. Dragon fighting dragon is a worst case scenario that nobody wants to see. The returned egg, though, is obviously harder and much closer to hatching than its remaining siblings. Jaxom and Ruth come across information that leads them to conclude that they are the ones who returned it and concoct a plan to execute the dazzling counter-caper.
Later, after Jaxom and Ruth have been officially training to fight Thread, they get to fly their first Fall. Which they do despite the fact that Jaxom is feeling sick. Like a small case of the sniffles would keep him from that, right? Job done they decide to bathe and refresh themselves in a nice little secluded cove in the Southern Continent that Jaxom’s friend Menolly and Masterharper Robinton had recently discovered. To his credit, Jaxom did leave a note which is a good thing because once Ruth is clean Jaxom lies down on the beach for a nap . . .
. . . And wakes up a month later having nearly died from a rare disease known as Fire-head. Ruth had called for help as soon as he realized that Jaxom was seriously ill. Instantaneous telepathic communication can be downright handy at times. Jaxom had been carefully nursed by Brekke (established as an accomplished healer as far back as Dragonquest), and Sharra, whose ambitious brother Toric is the Holder at Southern who has had to put up with the Oldtimers interference while trying to both establish and expand his young Hold. Over the rest of the book a romance develops between Jaxom and Sharra. There are times when I think that this feels a little forced or rushed but fundamentally I think it works.
While Jaxom is recovering in the Cove two of the Southern Oldtimers pull yet another stunt that winds up with a dragon dying and his rider fighting F’lar. This time F’lar does kill his opponent. Since the dead rider had been basically the leader and worst of the lot down there, new leadership is chosen and steps are taken to rotate in new dragons and return the Southern Weyr to full fighting strength. Unfortunately, in the aftermath of that fatal duel Masterharper Robinton suffers a heart attack.
Ah, Master Robinton. He’s easily one of my all time favorite characters from this or any other author. I’ve not taken the space to more than barely mention his name so far but he’s been a key character since Dragonflight. Robinton is a sage, a wit, a wise arbiter, a voice of reason who skillfully uses his influence to more or less keep everyone working against Thread rather than against each other. He’s easily the single most respected man on Pern. So much so that in the midst of his heart attack many of the dragons take it upon themselves to speak directly to him to keep him awake and alive.
Master Robinton steps down as head of the Harper Hall then travels south by swift ship to recuperate in the same cove where Jaxom has been. While he’s on his way volunteers from every Weyr, Hold, and Craft rush to construct a dwelling suitable for the Masterharper to enjoy his retirement. The result is downright lavish and Robinton is floored by the effort expended on his behalf.
After another few weeks the Master Healer checks up on Jaxom and Robinton and declares both of them fully recovered from their respective maladies. Robinton immediately puts Jaxom, along with Sharra, Menolly, and Piemur to work exploring inland toward the great cone-shaped mountain visible in the distance with the ultimate goal of finding the very first human habitation on the planet. They’d been getting numerous vague hints on that subject from the collective memories of the wild Southern fire lizards which had been seeping into their dreams over the past weeks. The wild fire lizards were excited to see humans “returning” since their collective memory showed them fleeing from an enormous volcanic eruption so long ago.
Sure enough, around the base of that old volcano are the obvious signs of man-made structures buried under the ash. The explorers use Ruth to encourage the wild fire lizards to keep remembering any details they can. Fairly soon they come up with the image of long cylindrical objects with stubby wings swooping down out of the sky, landing in a vast field and finally opening to disgorge their human passengers. The four young people and Ruth follow the fire lizards to the site of this new memory and proceed to excavate down to one of the shuttles. They’d found the actual vehicles that their ancestors had arrived in!
With far too little effort (I know the colonists were a far more advanced civilization than ours but so much so that the shuttle door’s mechanism still works after 25 centuries? I call shenanigans!) they get the door open and get to step inside. Actually by this point they’d called for several others to come witness and help out, including the Benden Weyrleaders, the Master Smith and others so quite a few were on hand for the opening. Inside the find many interesting “artifacts” and also a large, fully detailed map of the planet. This is a major find because to this point they had no maps of the Southern Continent. In fact, Piemur’s job for the past several months had been to chart the Southern coastline on foot. The Benden Weyrleaders see that even if they cede to Toric all of the territory that he currently claims (which is itself huge: nearly half the size of the occupied Northern Continent), most of the Southern will still be available to the Dragonriders.
This Coming of Age story can’t be complete until Jaxom gets the girl (Sharra, in this case). About the time that the shuttles are being dug up, Toric calls his sister back to Southern Hold to tend to a “medical emergency.” It’s just a pretense. Toric does not approve of his sister’s choice because even if Jaxom is a Lord, it’s only over a “table sized Hold in the North.” Armed with the new information from the map, the Benden Weyrleaders bring Toric in to see the shuttles and to finalize the boundaries of his Hold (They had earlier made an agreement that Toric could permanently Hold all the territory he managed to control by the time the Oldtimers died out. The recent changes at the Southern Weyr meant that some alterations to that agreement were called for.). Toric pretty much gets exactly what he wanted so he’s happy.
While that meeting is in progress Jaxom and Ruth rescue Sharra from Southern Hold where Toric had confined her and jump between to the shuttles where the meeting was concluding. Jaxom pointedly informs Toric, “Place and time are no barriers to Ruth. Sharra and I can go anywhere, anywhen on Pern.” Ironically, Toric is impressed by the “lordling’s” spunk and revises his estimation of Jaxom upward and finally bows to the inevitable. The story concludes with the annual gathering of all the Lords Holder at which the newlywed Jaxom will be confirmed Lord of Ruatha in his own right and now longer under the authority of Lytol.
Obviously a lot happens in this book. I spent a lot of time talking about the final third of the book (and barely scratched the surface, believe me!) because in my opinion the discovery of the colonist’s shuttles is the key event that kicks off the rest of the Main Sequence. It’s the point at which the series falls firmly on the Science-Fiction side of the Speculative Fiction super-genre. Before this one could argue that it’s mostly Fantasy with just the barest hints of science peeking through at times. With the shuttles unearthed the story’s foundation is unambiguously Sci-Fi. It’s a trick that I don’t think I’ve seen used by any other author that I can remember reading. I have seen a few worlds built by other authors in which some unimaginably huge cataclysm shakes our world and then a few hundred or thousand years later the story takes place in a pre-industrial fantasy setting complete with magic (and not in a Clarke’s 3rd Law sense, either). McCaffrey’s Pern is a different beast altogether, one for which she has been laying the science-fictional groundwork for since Dragonflight‘s first publication in 1968.
I’m pretty sure I’ll be doing a post soon about the best order in which to read the Pern books. The next book I’ll be writing up, however, is The Renegades of Pern since it substantially overlaps the events of this book.
Yeah, so I just finished the 6th Pern novel that I’ve got but have only written up the first two. Need to fix that. But I’d much rather dive into the Harper Hall trilogy instead. I’ve been looking forward to those because music has been such a huge part of my own life to date. But, work first!
Dragonquest is the second volume in what I consider the Main Sequence books and is the direct sequel to Dragonflight. Even twenty years ago “Dragonquest” bothered me as a title because there is no quest that any dragons (or riders) must complete. This book is all about the tensions that have been building over seven years of Threadfall between Hold, Craft Hall, and Weyr (both Oldtimer and Modern).
The Oldtimers, remember, are the five Weyrs that followed Lessa 400 years into their future to save the planet from thread in her current time. Now seven years into this present Pass they are starting to show the strains and stresses of long service and the knowledge that the end is still decades away. While all dragonriders enjoy a measure of privilege in their world, some of the Oldtimers are beginning to overreach and to claim additional entitlements. Dragonquest opens with two Oldtimers attempting to claim as a tithe item an ornate knife that was specifically created as a wedding gift from the Smith Crafthall to Lord Larad of Telgar Hold. Their attempt is thwarted by F’nor’s intervention. Unfortunately this comes at the cost of a nasty knife wound to F’nor when the irrationally worked-up Oldtimer attacks him. The two Oldtimers return (knifeless!) to Fort Weyr but face less-than-thorough justice from their leadership. F’nor’s wound is serious enough that he is sent to Southern Weyr to recover.
That one event is the spark that lights up this tinderbox. That one event kicks off all of the other events in this book.
The sins of (some of) the Oldtimers, which include other improper material claims and improper hunting of Hold herds for dragon feeding as well as dereliction of duty during threadfall, can no longer be rationalized away since they did, after all, save the planet. Holders and Crafters are coming to resent the Weyrs despite the protection they offer. Holder confidence is further shaken when Thread suddenly deviates from its heretofore predictable pattern of fall. The Oldtimer Weyrs feel insulted when riders from Benden, the only modern Weyr, consistently side with Hold and Hall against them.
Now add to this volatile mix F’nor’s discovery (while recuperating at Southern) that fire lizards can be Impressed and kept as pets. Fire lizards are “dragons in miniature” with virtually all the same abilities as their larger cousins and everyone simply has to have one (at least!). Aside from size, the only real difference to fire lizards is that they’re not capable of language but are perfectly capable of communicating by emotions and, to a lesser degree, images shared telepathically with the people who Impress them.
The distribution of fire lizards becomes a central factor of Southern Weyrwoman Kylara’s [slut!]* machinations with Lord Meron [asshole!]* of Nabol Hold (remember those names from the end of the last post?).
And to round out the setup for this novel, technological sophistication is starting to slowly progress once again. At the time the present Pass began Pern was a pre-industrial society. No printing press (records are kept on cured hides), no mass production, no steam or petroleum power (although there were a few specific applications of water wheels for mechanical power). Early in Dragonquest the Smith Craft Master Fandarel develops a version of the telegraph in an effort to improve communication. Additionally, a master Woodcrafter, Bendarek, has independently developed paper for the first time from the old growth hardwoods that grew up over the Long Interval. These and other newfangled nuisances annoy various Oldtimers, Holders and even other Crafters, especially once a precocious young Lord Jaxom rediscovers a long unused suite of rooms while on a visit to Benden Weyr in which I as a modern reader recognize implements of a scientific laboratory. That discovery leads to many questions about what else may have been lost or forgotten over the centuries.
The situation on Pern is obviously far, far from stable. And while there’s not a single, main plot that Dragonquest is built around, there are four or five smaller plot threads that contain all of the action.
First up, the tension between the Oldtimers and the Benden riders finally comes to a head when T’ron, the leader of Fort Weyr, duels the Benden leader, F’lar over the modern rider’s tendency to stick his nose where it doesn’t belong:
“Yes, Oldtimer, Benden Weyr concerns itself with Ista and Igen, And the Holds of Nabol, and Crom, and Telgar, because Benden dragonmen have not forgotten that Thread burns anything and anyone it touches, Weyr and commoner alike. And if Benden Weyr has to stand alone against the fall of Thread, it will.”
F’lar defeats T’ron without killing him and exiles T’ron any riders who wish to follow to the Southern Continent. Since most of R’mart’s High Reaches Weyr chooses to go south, the newly displaced Southern riders move into High Reaches. Southern was chosen because it is both out of the way and also because the Southern Continent is thoroughly seeded with a type of grub that is a near perfect defense against Thread. I’ve largely elided that detail above but how the grubs are discovered and their function determined is a significant sub plot of its own.
Now at High Reaches Weyr, Kylara [slut!] is much closer to Lord Meron [asshole!] and they continue to make trouble. They’re also involved romantically which leads directly to the greatest tragedy of the series. I’ll try to keep it short, I swear. When a gold dragon rises to mate she broadcasts her emotions with enormous strength. Other gold riders take their dragons far away as a standard practice. Brekke, rider of Wirenth (and the only other person besides Lessa who can telepathically hear every dragon), and F’nor had previously developed a relationship and they come up with the harebrained idea that F’nor’s Canth would fly against the usual bronze dragons when Wirenth’s time came. Bronzes are traditionally the only dragons to fly golds since they’re the largest males. Brown Canth, however, is as large as many of the bronzes and figures he’s got as good a shot as any of them. When Wirenth rises the other golds scatter but Kylara [slut!] doesn’t go far enough. She’d only gone to Nabol Hold. To see Meron [asshole!]. Their amorous activity ends up triggering Prideth who was due to rise soon herself. When Prideth sees Wirenth leading her bronzes (and an upstart brown) through the sky she jealously launches herself after them. There follows an absolutely epic battle between the two gold dragons and the All Hands response that tries to separate them. Eventually the more nimble Wirenth locks herself onto Prideth and takes them both between. They never return. Both women are left catatonic by the psychic trauma (serves Kylara [slut!] right!) but I’m always nearly bawling over Brekke’s loss. But I’m a bit of a softie, after all.
A week or so later the clutch at Benden is ready to Hatch although this particular occasion isn’t as joyous as it usually is. F’lar and Lessa have the even-more-harebrained idea to present Brekke as a candidate for the gold egg on the theory that she’d almost certainly Impress the new queen due to her ability to hear all dragons. The little queen very nearly picks Brekke but is scolded away by her fire lizard and chooses another girl instead. Fortunately that intervention helped snap Brekke out of her catatonic state and she begins to recover. Also at this Hatching is a very small, almost runt-ish, egg that is having trouble hatching. That same precocious, ten-year-old Lord Jaxom takes it upon himself to help the poor thing out of its shell. You’re right! Jaxom Impresses little Ruth who is indeed a runt at half the size of his siblings and who has a white hide instead of the gold, bronze, brown, blue, or green that every other dragon has been. This, of course, causes all kinds of trouble: How can Jaxom be both a Lord Holder and a Dragonrider? What happens when the poor thing dies (as it surely would!)? Those questions and others will be the main focus of the next book, The White Dragon. But I bet you saw that coming.
Finally, over the second half of the book several Lords Holder, including Meron [asshole!] (naturally), have been increasingly grumbling about the Weyrs’ apparent “reluctance” to fight Thread at its source: the wandering planet known as the Red Star. They’ve convinced themselves that, with the discovery of the powerful telescope among the items in the Benden rooms, it should be straightforward for the dragonriders to find a visual reference good enough for them to make the jump between. F’lar has a difficult time getting them to realize that even if conditions on the other planet would allow them to survive (which was certainly not proven) that it would still be a logistical impossibility to char the entire surface. Meron [asshole!] is the most incorrigible of the Lords and fair monopolizes the telescope looking for a reference good enough for his fire lizard to use to make the leap. The fire lizard, being a perfectly sane creature, is having none of that and is so upset that it leaves Meron [asshole!], possibly permanently. At least, I’ve never seen whether it ever came back. F’nor was present at that particular viewing and once Meron [asshole!] leaves, takes a turn at the telescope. He sees a feature that he thinks might work as a reference and asks his own fire lizard (a queen) if she could do it. While the reference really isn’t good enough for her, her much stronger reaction to F’nor’s request is outright terror of the Red Star.
“Canth,” he said taking a deep breath, “You said the coordinates I gave her were vivid. Vivid enough–for you to take me to that fist I saw in the clouds?”
Yes, I can see where you want me to go, Canth replied so confidently that F’nor was taken aback.
And so he and Canth make the attempt with precisely zero preparation. It’s an interplanetary step between which takes far longer that the short hops about Pern. They arrive to superheated air that’s not breathable and filled with dust that basically sandblasts skin and hide. Canth’s psychic scream of anguish can be felt by every dragon on Pern and most riders. It’s only because of Brekke’s equally strong cry, “Don’t leave me alone!” that they’re able to find their way back between to Pern. Too damaged to fly, every other dragon teleports into position to catch them and bear them safely to the ground where heroic efforts are made to save them. Dragonquest ends with confirmation that both man and beast are on the mend and that their mad jump had put to rest the idea of fighting Thread on the Red Star.
I knew that scene would be coming up on this re-read but it wasn’t until a few pages before that all of the details came back and hit me full force. It was literally a “WHOA” moment where I had to stop reading and sit for a while. Softie that I am I’d been struck by the memory that it was Brekke’s anguish that guided them back home. More than that though was the memory that this scene will be revisited in the second Harper Hall book, Dragonsinger as experienced by one of my all-time favorite characters, Menolly. Being a Harper in training she sets her experience of the event to music which I think makes for an even stronger telling than in Dragonquest. Still, all of those details resurfaced in an instant and literally took my breath away.
I am positively thrilled that I could react so strongly to this book I’ve known for twenty years now. And who says you need a single central plot when for slightly smaller ones can be braided together so effectively!
* – “Slut” and “asshole” are the traditional audience callbacks for the characters Janet and Brad respectively in the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Their application to McCaffrey’s characters is much more apt and, more importantly, amuses me.
Sometime in the past 24 – 48 hours the WordPress software running this site blocked my 1,000th spam comment. And those are the ones that never make it to the actual spam folder for me to evaluate with my own eyeballs which I think I’ve only had to do a dozen times or so over the past few years.
Well done, WP!
In other news, I just got the past 9 months worth of book purchases into my library spreadsheet, 25 titles in all. Over half of those I would recommend in a heartbeat. Perhaps someday I’ll get around to doing a quick write up like I did last time. But not tonight. It’s after midnight and well past my bedtime .