Dragonquest by Anne McCaffrey

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Rating 5.8/10
I'm not prejudiced, but people born 400 years ago just don't make good political leaders

Dragonquest was the first Dragonriders book I ever ran across, albeit not the first I ever read since only a glance at the introduction showed thirteen year old me that the book was part of a series. Though I did then read Dragonflight, due to the vagaries of library services it was actually a few Pern books later that I got back to Dragonquest. This is perhaps why it didn’t have as much of an impact upon me then as it might’ve done.

Returning twenty two years and a lot of reading and life experience later, I hope to give it a fairer showing this time around.

Note that if like my thirteen year old self you also stumble on this Dragonquest review unawares I will be discussing Dragonflight spoilers.

The book takes place seven years/turns after Lessa’s Heroic journey through time to bring the five lost weyrs of dragonriders into Pern’s future to counter the alien thread. Unfortunately, the Oldtimers; as the dragonriders from the past are known, come from a Pern four hundred turns distant, a time when the weyrs commanded far more power and privilege than they do now and held themselves aloof from the rest of Pern society. This tension comes to a head when F’nor stops an attempt at extortion by two thuggish dragonriders getting stabbed in the process, and though this does leave F’nor a chance to recover at southern weyr in the hands of the kindly Brekke, it also requires F’lar and Lessa to play a delicate political game; balancing the arrogance of the old timers, and the simmering resentment of the lords holder who too rapidly forget the debt they owe the weyr folk, not to mention the political machinations of the ambitious Weyrwoman Kylara and her consort Lord Meron. But as tensions mount discoveries are being made that will change the face of Pern forever. Master smith Fandarell is working on a way of communicating down wires and Pern’s ancient caverns hold marvels from the past. A chance meeting also leads F’nor to rediscover dragon’s ancestors, the smaller fire lizards, though whether these will be used to fuel resentment of the elite dragonriders or to unite Pern is yet to be seen.

The society which McCaffrey depicted in Dragonflight was almost a typical fantasy/medieval one. A world of noble bloodlines, unexpected princesses and honourable dragonriders. Here however, she truly starts to flesh that society out with many subtle little details and asides, indeed far more than I picked up as a teenager. From the fact that green is considered an unlucky colour due to being associated with open vegetation and the threat of thread attack, to the fact that weyr folk’s marital arrangements are necessarily less conservative than most people’s due to the psychic influence of mating dragons, increasingly Pern starts to feel far more a real place. Here too, the responsibilities and structure of the crafts and the functions of lords holder are expanded in a subtle but detailed way giving a background to Pern’s rather tangled politics.

This subtlety is also likely why the book is sometimes criticised as slow, since as McCaffrey follows a comparatively small number of characters, the more violent and unpleasant events such as many riders being injured in an unexpected thread fall or by one rider’s careless use of a flamethrower need to be imagined by implication rather than shown directly. Even the extortion practiced by the old timers is more often discussed than seen. This is also likely why I find Dragonquest a more rewarding experience now, than I did as a teenager.

Yet, not all of the book’s pacing issues are entirely down to world building, despite McCaffrey’s strengths, frequently the raw nuts and bolts of her writing style were somewhat lacking. Sentences with confused subjects, patchy use of description and uneven changes in view all make the first half of Dragonquest feel rather slower than it should have done.

Her political byplay is however exceptional, I particularly liked the way she captured the idea of various personalities with different approaches to problems ranging from stony opposition, to overly fervent support, to inadequate compromise. Unfortunately, due to her rather uneven hand with description and her habit of introducing many characters at once its necessary to keep a note of who is who in the political debates, since sadly not all of the players are introduced with enough gravitas to make an impression. This is a shame, since this book does feature some truly memorable players, from the wonderfully loathsome Kylara (really no one writes sociopathic women quite like McCaffrey), to the wily masterharper Robinton or the blustering lord Groghe. Indeed, I was especially pleased to see more of Robinton here and how he deftly shapes events, from his composition of ballads intended to influence public opinion, to his more personal actions such as getting a good man completely drunk in order that he forget a terrible tragedy, then slyly proving he himself wasn’t the least bit tipsy just in time to give Lessa a nudge in the right direction.

Speaking of Lessa, both she and F’lar were also far more pleasant to be around this time, mostly because F’lar tended to be focused entirely on getting all of Pern around a table to coordinate defence against thread and so far less the domineering figure he’d been previously. Though Lessa was still occasionally the haughty princess, she was also rather nicer, indeed one scene in which she shamelessly flirts with an intransigent weyr leader then wearily sighs “the things I do for Pern” to F’lar was actually rather amusing (particularly since it was so different from the strident, acerbic weyrwoman of Dragonflight).

Unfortunately one major issue the book still has (and one which attracts a not inconsiderable amount of bile in reviews), is the issue of gender and the way women are portrayed. To some extent this is due to Pern being a Medieval Society where genders are definitely not considered equal. This is why for example nearly all domestic work and organization is done by women, and men wait for women to serve them food or even pour drinks. Likewise F’lar’s comment that a meeting of weyr leaders is “a matter for men” is clearly social in nature, given the fact that at stage weyr leader is an exclusively male position.

It is also true that in Dragonquest we get the first few hints that Pern is changing (something which will be explored later in the series), such as with the efficiency obsessed master Fandarell rather surprising Lessa by noting that women in the smith hall worked on any engineering or design projects they could, or Brekke’s outright question to F’nor as to why a woman could not ride a fighting dragon, a comment to which F’nor gently responds that “fighting thread is hard work” to which Brekke tartly observes “so is running a weyr.”

That being said, there are several rather more problematic moments in the book concerning gender. For example when a woman in paroxysms of grief is repeatedly slapped to stop her crying, or when Lessa makes rather David Eddings like comments about men’s inability to take care of themselves in matters of rest and food (something which seems doubly odd given that people working in a disaster zone as most Dragonriders do would be the last to risk their own failure through exhaustion).

Undoubtedly though, the single worst instance of gender portrayal is in the relationship between F’nor and Brekke.

F’nor generally didn’t register in Dragonflight, mostly he was the more relaxed brother who got sent on errands, and apart from one extremely problematic section in which Lessa and F’lar laughed at him for wanting to avoid the sexually predatory Kylara we didn’t really learn much about him.

Here he shows himself generally to be more easy going and compassionate than his brother, ready to step in when others are threatened as with the oldtimer’s extortion.

Unfortunately though, McCaffrey makes some odd decisions with his character, for example when he speaks of wishing someone would “thrash Kylara” to “put her in her place.” After all, just because Pern is a society where men may strike women with impunity doesn’t mean all men, especially decent men, would desire to do so. Of course had these comments been tied to a not unreasonable hatred of Kylara given her previous behaviour towards F’nor I might have understood the remark, though McCaffrey does not make this clear so it just comes off as oddly vicious.

Brekke is one of the most genuinely appealing characters in the series; I had quite the crush on her as a teenager. A gentle person who hides behind the no nonsense manner of a healer. She reveals to F’nor that as someone brought up in the crafts she is afraid of being overcome by her dragon’s sexuality when her queen rises to mate, especially since she is in love with F’nor. When he realizes this F’nor kisses her, a kiss which turns into the desire to comfort her and then the desire to give her a gentle first experience of love.

This by rights should have been a truly beautiful scene, unfortunately it was anything but. Though described in sparse detail, McCaffrey freely says that F’nor tried to be gentle but wasn’t and mentions how Brekke pleads with and fights F’nor before “surrendering” (as she puts it). In the language she uses, having Brekke talk of wanting a man to “possess her”, to speaking of Brekke “submitting to his virility”, even to having F’nor carry a protesting Brekke off into the undergrowth I am fairly sure that Anne McCaffrey was here following the conventions of older romance novels, what are descriptively called bodice rippers. That being said this scene is nothing short of nasty, particularly with how the nice-natured and apparently well intentioned F’nor suddenly won’t take no for an answer.

What is odd, is from this point on, the plot follows Brekke and F’nor having a fulfilling and loving relationship, indeed one which has a major and profound effect on events later in the book. To make the rest of the novel work, it is therefore necessary to do some mental editing, to insert a gentle and sensitive love scene here between F’nor and Brekke; rather like the one McCaffrey writes for them later, and ignore the unpleasantness McCaffrey actually describes. Fortunately, my lady (who has read far more McCaffrey than I have), informs me that the scene between Brekke and F’nor is unique both in the dragonrider’s series and in McCaffrey’s writing as a whole, still, there is no denying that it’s a distasteful scene and a low point for the series.

One thing Dragonquest does get right is its dragons. Here, the dragons actually speak and have characters and personalities, indeed excepting the above scene, the way F’nor’s brown dragon Kanth encourages F’nor to get together with Brekke is actually quite amusing. I particularly liked how Kanth notes that as an unusually large brown dragon he could buck tradition and out fly the bronze dragons to mate with Brekke’s queen so that F’nor and Brekke could be together more permanently.

The role of projecting vague emotions and telepathic impressions the dragons had in Dragonflight is here given to the much less intelligent fire lizards, which again makes for a wonderful sense of variation.

The book’s second half also picks up the pace, with some unpleasant and tragic things happening to major characters, and whatever other issues I have with McCaffrey’s writing style it is in the second half that she proves she can write intensive actions scenes, and ones that impact her characters extremely well; especially when dragons are involved.

The second half also introduces us to one of the most memorable character s of the series, the twelve year old lord Jaxom. Caught between curious boy and responsible lord of Ruatha hold, Jaxom is one of the series most appealing characters and one who will be a major part of later novels. Although the events concerning him and his dour guardian Lytol are less connected to the rest of the books plot; almost a self-contained novella, they do setup what is to come very well and make for an extremely nice interlude.

The book’s ending is one of its finest moments. MCCaffrey gather’s all her descriptive powers and plays with the concept of the million to one long shot in a truly heart rending way evoking horror and heroism in equal measure. Though it does not exactly finish in a final sense, the ending does make it clear that there is a long road ahead and that it won’t be an easy one.

There is a lot to like in Dragonquest. McCaffrey fleshes out her world with for the most part nicer characters and includes some truly fascinating politics, albeit politics that takes some concentration to keep up with. She introduces many key elements and figures in the series as well as making Pern; and its dragons, feel a lot more real.

That being said McCaffrey still hasn’t hit her stride here. At times slightly clunky writing, uneven descriptions and some uneven gender relations; especially the ugliness between F’nor and Brekke; I docked the book a full mark for this scene alone, make Dragonquest still a problematic entry in the series.

Yet, Dragonquest did improve on its predecessor and I suspect I will thoroughly enjoy the next book. So, if like myself and apparently most of the population of Pern you’ve always longed to be bonded to a dragon of your own, Dragonquest may be worth a visit, even if it would mean risking death by flesh eating alien thread.

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