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Book cover: Dragonriders of Pern

Dragonflight

Dragonriders of Pern #1

by Anne McCaffrey

Dragonflight was my introduction to Anne McCaffrey many, many years ago. I picked it up sometime in 4th grade on my mother's recommendation and instantly fell in love with the world, with the characters and (of course) with the dragons.

Now, with my own daughter in 4th grade, I am revisiting the Dragonriders of Pern series again. Will it stand the test of time? Was this book really good, or do I owe my fond memories of it to youth and inexperience in the genre? Can I recommend this to my daughter in turn? Let's find out!

The World

The Dragonriders of Pern series is "Science Fantasy" -- a hybrid genre that takes traditional fantasy elements and then attempts to explain them through science. Anne McCaffrey herself always insisted that her work be viewed as science fiction, and consulted experts in astrology, reproductive biology, etc to make sure that she understood the science involved. Dragonflight opens with a prologue that explains the history of the planet Pern, giving context to the story to come.

In brief, the Rukbat system was surveyed by Earth many years ago and found to contain one inhabitable earthlike planet with few interesting resources. PERN = Parallel Earth, Resources Negligible. Rights to colonize the planet were bought and a group of colonists arrived on PERN with the goal of leading a simpler life. Given the planet's lack of exotic minerals that would be interesting to mining operations elsewhere, the colonists were ensured a peaceful existence on the outskirts of human civilization.

However, the Rukbat system had a deadly secret. Apart from the five native planets of the Rukbat system, observers discovered a small rogue planet, captured by Rukbat from a neighboring system, in a highly erratic elliptical orbit which brought it close to Pern every 200 years. Disregarded as a curiosity, the Red Star's steady approach was unremarked for the first two generations of colonists. When proximity and conditions allowed, the native life of the Red Star spun off from the planetoid as deadly spores aimed at Pern's welcoming surface.

The first Threadfall was catastrophic. The colonists, completely unprepared for the deadly rain of silvery filaments from the sky suffered huge casualties. Anything and anyone caught out in the open was literally eaten alive, and any unprotected land became blackened as Thread burrowed into the soil and multiplied. Only metal and stone could stop the Thread, so the colonists were forced to move into caves on the inhospitable northern continent, abandoning their original settlement to the south.

To combat the Threads, a two-part plan was developed. One, a native grub was genetically engineered to eat Thread from the soil and was seeded across the Southern continent. Two, a native winged species was altered to become larger, stronger and far more intelligent than the native "fire lizards" from which they were born. Called "dragons" because of the mythical Earth creatures they resembled, these creatures bond at hatching with a human who partners with them for life. Together, they formed an aerial force that burned Thread from the skies. The Dragonriders of Pern were begun.

Several millennia later, all knowledge of the colonist's origins have been lost. People shelter in stone Holds and work the lands around them, while dragonriders live in mountainous Weyrs. Unable to grow their own food, the Weyrs are tithed to by the Holds they protect -- both during the 50 year "Pass" of the Red Star and the 200 year "Interval" of no Threadfall. Skilled craftsman -- smith, weaver, farmer, miner, fisher, herder and harper -- gathered into Halls to practice and refine their craft. Though each craft Hall is sheltered by a Hold, they are considered independent entities, ensuring that the products of their labor are available to all.

The Plot

Dragonflight begins after a Long Interval -- a period of 400 years free of Thread. The six great Weyrs have been reduced in number to a lone survivor, and dragonriders have fallen out of favor. After 400 years with no Thread, people are content to treat it as a myth. The purpose and honor of the dragons and their riders is dismissed. Dragonriders are parasites, soon to be forgotten entirely.

Only one man believes that the Threads will return. F'lar, rider of bronze dragon Mnementh, has spent his entire adult life pouring over ancient records and training those under his command to be ready for Thread's return. Unfortunately, he is not Weyrleader -- R'gul is. And R'gul is so scared of upsetting the holders further that he has implemented a policy of isolation that ensures the continued decline of the Weyr. Once populated by hundreds of dragons and many queens, Benden Weyr now hosts barely over a hundred dragons. And the sickly old queen dragon, dying on the hatching grounds, has laid one final queen egg to continue to population. One queen egg, one chance for dragonkind. One chance for F'lar to find a strong woman to Impress the new queen and bring about the changes so desperately needed.

Without getting into too many spoilers, I will say that the plot is very good. The stakes are high, and the author continually finds new problems for F'lar and Lessa (the new queen rider) to solve. The fate of the entire world rests on their ability to figure out whatever they can about Thread, learn how to fight it, and convince a large group of recalcitrant Hold and Craft leaders to cooperate. The biggest problem, by far, is how understrength Benden Weyr is. How can one reduced Weyr do the work of six full-strength fighting forces? What happened to the other Weyrs? Why were they abandoned suddenly, 400 years ago?

The answer to that question is the major point of Dragonflight, so I won't spoil it here. Let's just say that puzzle solving, research and extreme heroics are required by both Lessa and F'lar and I love how the book ends.

The Characters

Apart from F'lar, Lessa is the other protagonist of this book. Young, strong-willed and fiercely intelligent, Lessa has spent most of her life focused on revenge. The daughter of Lord Holder of Ruatha, she witnessed the brutal murder of her entire family when she was just ten years old. For ten long years, she has hidden herself in her family's hold as a common laborer, working steadily to destroy the prosperity of Ruatha so that the invader Fax could realize no profit from his conquest. When the dragonriders arrive with Lord Fax on Search, she sees it only as an opportunity to rid herself finally of a hated enemy, and works to set the dragonriders against the self-styled Lord of the High Reaches.

I like how none of the characters in this book are perfect. Lessa, though quick-witted and brave, is also stubborn, rebellious and unable to trust anyone. She acts alone, without always anticipating the consequences of her own actions. McCaffrey did a wonderful job portraying a young woman who still has a lot of room for growth, without making her annoying or unlikeable (to me, at least). It's a hard balance to strike.

F'lar, in his turn, is driven, ambitious and focused to the point of being almost callous and cold. He, like Lessa, has fought on his own for so long that he has trouble confiding in anyone other than his dragon or his half-brother F'nor. It takes him a long while to stop underestimating Lessa, and even longer to entrust her with his plans. The adversarial relationship between the two is good plot fodder, though I was relieved to see it worked out by the end.

Is this book for young adults?

Given that I read this book in elementary school, you think that would be a settled question, but I was reading adult books at a young age. The language of this book is certainly more advanced than a lot of the recently published young adult stuff I have read. Wonderful vocabulary words abound (saturnine, victuals, parochial, redolent, maunderings...), and I remember needing to use a dictionary for this. (I also remember being so caught up in the story that I neglected to use a dictionary often enough, leading to some mistaken understandings that stayed with me for years.)

The content is also just (barely) appropriate for young adults. There is sex and a great deal of man-woman relationship stuff. The sex is not explicit but it is implied and discussed far more than I recall. I think a lot of it flew over my head when I was in fourth grade, thankfully.

Adult relationships in the Weyr are... fluid. The Queen dragon will fly to mate a couple of times a year, and is caught by whatever bronze dragon can outfly her. When that happens, the riders are also overcome through their telepathic link with the dragons and they also (ahem) copulate. As a result, marriage isn't really a thing in Weyrs, though permanent attachments can and do occur when a queen consistently allows only a particular bronze to catch her. Rape is mentioned in passing, and implied heavily with Fax's relationship with his own women.

Male/female relationships are also colored by the period in which this book was written. Dragonflight was first published in 1968, and you can sort of see that in the pairing of F'lar and Lessa. Lessa, when she is rebellious or immature, is admonished and/or disciplined by F'lar (who tends to shake her). F'lar thinks of Lessa as "that girl" for most of the book, considering her childish and headstrong. This does ease off as they establish a relationship as Weyrwoman and Weyrleader, working together for the mutual benefit of Pern, but it is there throughout.

McCaffrey was considered a leader in the "planetary romance" sub-genre, and I suppose Dragonflight can be viewed that way, if you squint? Certainly Lessa and F'lar's partnership is important, but it is not the central driving force of the plot. I certainly wouldn't consider this a romance novel, but I suppose that wasn't what I was trying to get out of the book, either.

I think that this is definitely an adult book, though it could be a good stretch read for young adults. The strong writing and relatable characters, provide an excellent incentive to plow through unfamiliar vocabulary, and the plot isn't overly complex. I would, however, advise some caution regarding content for middle-grade readers and below.

Conclusions

I don't have a lot of bad things to say about this book. As I was reading it, it became clear to me just how many times I must have read it when I was younger. I loved this book then, and I still do. I whole-heartedly recommend it to anyone who loves science fiction OR fantasy, as the blending of the two is so seamless here. Pern's Weyrs and Holds are idyllic backdrop to a story of bravery, sacrifice and love that I think stands the test of time. I can't wait to introduce it to my own daughter, though . . . perhaps I will wait another year or two.

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