Dragonriders of Pern #2
by Anne McCaffrey
Dragonquest, the second book of the Pern series by Anne McCaffrey, is in the same awkward position as all middle books of a trilogy: it must live up to the first book, expand on the world, and leave enough left unsolved for the next one. I am happy to report that Dragonquest does an admirable job on all three fronts, and is in fact one of the most enjoyable middle books of my experience as a reader.
Where are we?
After the events of Dragonflight, there is a time skip of seven years before this book. Just enough time for thing to settle down after the abrupt arrival of the oldtimers from 400 years in the past. Just enough time for the clash of values and procedures between present-day and historical folk to reach a boiling point.
As in Dragonflight, there is a toxic stew of mistrust and animosity between dragonriders and holders. However, it takes a natural disaster to actually set everything off. In Dragonquest, that comes from a sudden shift in Threadfall which has been falling in predictable patterns for the past seven years. When Thread falls out of schedule and over the wrong location, cooperation between weyrfolk, holders and crafters is once again more important than ever -- but the oldtimers are unwilling to do anything that breaks with tradition.
Will F'lar and Lessa step forward once again to lead, before Thread causes unimaginable loss of life and suffering? Can they bridge the gap between the modern Pernese and those who are 400 years out of their own time?
I have tremendous respect for Anne McCaffrey as an author after re-reading this book. I can't believe how well she paced everything! There was always something important happening, and often things didn't go exactly as the reader expected. Consequences felt natural, and the relationships between the various characters felt authentic (for the most part).
Also, there is an excellent villainess in this book. Kylara is so wonderfully awful that it is a joy to hate her. As a weyrwoman and rider of golden Prideth, she is immediately compared to the strategic, tactful, kind-hearted Lessa. Kylara is . . . none of these things. She shirks her duties, lives only for her own pleasure, and derives intense enjoyment out of making other people upset or furious. Lacking self-discipline, she cannot be disciplined by others as her dragon won't allow it. But Prideth is unhappy with her rider's behavior, and that says everything about Kylara that you need to know.
I'm going to avoid spoilers, but Kylara is responsible for a horrific tragedy towards the end of this book. I like how all of her actions, all of her pettiness, all of her vindictiveness reach their inevitable conclusion, to the heartbreak of all. The payoff, while tragic, fulfills reader expectations while coming from a very unexpected angle.
Dragonquest also introduces us to a few new major characters: Brekke, weyrwoman to Wirenth, and Jaxom, Lord Holder of Ruatha (the Hold that Lessa had to give up claim to in order to become a dragonrider in book 1). Both get significant screen time, and Brekke's developing relationship with F'nor accounts for the "planetary romance" aspect of this book. Both characters are given tremendous responsibilities and expectations that they must live up to, and both are doing the best they can. Jaxom, just 12, is so serious and considerate! No spoilers here, but I will say that his existing burdens are complicated in a wonderful way about mid-way through the book.
Oh, and this is the very first book that showcases fire lizards -- the predecessors of dragons. I freaking love fire lizards, and they will play a huge part in both the Harper Hall Trilogy and the final book of this series.
I wish that Kylara was matched with a better villain. Meron, Lord Holder of Nabol, is certainly a twat. Having been routed by Benden Weyr during a disastrous military venture against the dragonriders seven years ago, he holds a grudge against all weyrfolk. But, apart from general unpleasantness (and apparently a tendency to beat his sexual partners?), Meron is not a strong personality. He makes no good arguments and just likes to stir the pot. Perhaps the problem is that, unlike Kylara, we spend no time inside his head at all. Whatever the reason, I don't like Meron, but I don't see him as a serious threat -- just a nuisance that everyone would be better off ignoring.
Remember how I said earlier that there was always something going on in this book? I mean that there are a LOT of separate threads, as F'lar struggles to a) mend fences between the holders and the dragonriders, b) find a way to keep everyone safe while Thread is falling out of pattern and c) deal with his brother F'nor's sudden injury at the beginning of the book. All of that and more sort of coalesces during one scene at a wedding, and it feels like a bit too much. EVERYONE is at the wedding. EVERY grievance -- real and imagined -- is brought to light. There are fire lizards! And a Lord Holder's meeting! And a demonstration of distance writing by the Smiths! And a knife fight between two Weyrleaders!
Also, the Lord Holders' insistence that the dragonriders embark on a mission to the Red Star to burn away all the thread at the source seems ridiculous to me. When F'lar points out that such a mission would require massive preparation and actual coordinates, it doesn't stop the grumbling. The dragonriders obviously don't *want* to go to the Red Star and free everyone from Thread! They want to remain lord and master over Hold and Crafthall forever!
It is this idiocy that leads F'nor into doing something very, very stupid at the end of the book. I won't spoil it for you, but the ending of Dragonquest is a bit of a downer. Everything ends quite abruptly, and we are left with vague assurances about the future of both Pern and dragonkind. I understand that McCaffrey had to end it all somewhere, but I would have liked a few pages with F'nor, Canth and possibly Brekke as a callback to the beginning of the book (when F'nor was healing from his *first* serious injury this book).
This is a great entry to the Dragonriders of Pern series. McCaffrey revisited and expanded on a several themes here -- conflict between dragonriders and holders, the discovery of ancient technology that will change life on Pern, and the need to unite in the face of mutual danger. While the ending leaves the series' direction a little unclear, the drama and tragedy found in this installment justifies the read time.
I'm actually going to take a break from the main series right now and dive straight into the Harper Hall Trilogy, as the events from those books overlap Dragonquest and conclude before The White Dragon begins. And also, the Harper Hall Trilogy is probably the series that cemented my status as an avid reader at an early age. I love them so much.
Onward, to Dragonsong!