The White Dragon by Anne McCaffrey

The White Dragon book cover
Rating 6.5/10
Oh Korana, don't you cry for me, I'm going to Ruatha with my new love on my knee

Reading the Dragon Riders Series in order is not always easy, especially with The White Dragon. Though McCaffery was at work on the sequel to Dragonquest in the mid-seventies, she took time out to publish the first two books concerning Menolly, Dragonsong and Dragonsinger. Just to make things even more confusing, Dragondrumbs, though nominally a sequel to Dragonsinger is actually set before The White Dragon. Being the stickler that I am, and wanting to fill the gaps in my previously patchy journey through Pern, it was therefore time for me to reread The White Dragon, a book I remember reading as a teenager; though missing all the call-backs since I’d not heard Menolly’s story at that point. Also, bear in mind this review will contain spoilers for previous books, especially Dragonquest and Dragondrumbs.

Jaxum doesn’t know where he belongs. Though an accident caused him to impress Ruth, Pern’s first and only white dragon, he is not truly a dragon rider, particularly if nobody will train him to fight the lethal airborne thread. Though being son of the tyrant Fax and so hereditary lord of Ruatha Hold, he has neither the intention nor ambition to take the place of his stern guardian Lytol, Ruatha’s lord protector. But, despite his small size and unusual colour, Ruth has abilities no other dragon on Pern has, abilities that Jaxum will need to call on when chance puts him in the way of thwarting a plot against the dragonriders who serve as Pern’s protectors, and let him discover yet more of Pern’s forgotten past.

There is no denying, the start of The White Dragon was disappointing. Though McCaffery’s style was more readable than in her earlier books, and characters like the Weyr leaders N’ton and D’ram were presented in a much more memorable way, at the same time the plot just didn’t grab my attention. Part of this was previously reading Menolly and Piemur’s stories, since as soon as Jaxum started complaining about how terrible his life was, a life stuck essentially between the two most privileged positions on Pern, dragon rider and Lord holder, I felt a strong urge to eye roll. It was also here, that we got into the same slow, over-argued politics that bogged down the first half of Dragonquest. Indeed, whilst the way McCaffery makes most problems have reasonable solutions is a nice change from reality, at the same time, from a purely literary perspective, meetings to decide what to do about quarrelsome Lord holder’s sons or greedy extortionist dragonriders are far less interesting than actually seeing the quarrels and extortion first-hand. Indeed, had I not already read Dragonquest, I likely would be wondering what everyone had against the southern riders, since in this book at least we don’t really see them causing too much trouble.

Fortunately, matters improved with Jaxum and Ruth. Ruth indeed is the most three dimensional dragon we’ve seen yet in the series, with not only fascinating abilities, but a personality all his own, and a bond with Jaxum that transcends the usual faintly feline dragon and rider interaction into real friendship of a non-human kind. I particularly liked the way Ruth interacted with the dragon’s smaller cousins, the by now common fire lizards, and was able to order them around at will, including those fire lizards who belonged to unpleasant characters.

Speaking of characters, I am not sure if McCaffrey was in a bad mood when writing this book, or if she simply wanted to shake things up, but a lot of people got an injection of arrogance here, with both Lessa and F’lar reverting to their high handed Dragonflight selves. Though some of this could be attributed to threats made against her dragon, at the same time even when these threats are not present Lessa remained less than likable, haughty, shrewish, strident and on one occasion impulsive almost to the point of disaster. Mirrim, who had previously just come across as awkward, tactless and possibly autistic, here proved quite nasty, and what is worse, bought out an unnaturally nasty response in Jaxum. Piemur, possibly due to growing older developed a snooty streak, though in his case there may be a little more justification given the time he’s spent exploring the southern continent alone, and this did seem to be an extension of the boy we met in Dragondrumbs; Piemur always was slightly young for his age. Fortunately, this tendency didn’t affect all the characters. Robinton remained as awesome as ever, indeed I particularly enjoyed a scene in which he uses some incredibly fast talking to cajole Lessa out of starting a full scale war, managing to do with some well-chosen words what it took F’lar physical force to do in Dragonflight. Robinton also gets some of the book’s most memorable scenes, including one rather lovely one with his protégé Menolly. It was definitely good to see Menolly again, in particular, the sisterly relationship she has with Jaxum, indeed in such a gender traditional society as Pern, it’s always nice to see simple friendship between boys and girls. I (and likely McCaffery as well), laughed at a rather amusing section, set prior to Menolly ending up with Sebell), where Robinton entirely misses the boat and wonders if Menolly might make a good lady for Jaxum; no, master harper, they really are just good friends.

Once we get into the middle section of the book, the plot does begin to pick up, however more through a series of interconnected events, rather than a single ongoing narrative. For example, Jaxum’s travails with the southern riders come to a sudden halt, albeit one with some interesting misunderstandings and temporal paradoxes, while a complex plot concerning D’ram’s retirement and a dragon mating flight between the Weyrs does not involve Jaxum at all, other than as part of the clean-up. This, combined with a lack of action did make the book’s pace fairly ponderous, particularly with The White Dragon being the longest Dragonriders book yet.

Another issue was the way the book handled several relationships and assumptions about gender. Pern is still a medieval society, but one where matters are changing, (this is the first time I’ve seen men pouring drinks), thus I was quite amused that when Robinton suggests early on setting up a school where the “sons” of nobles can interact with young crafters and Dragonriders to learn from each other; as well as keep out of mischief, both Menolly and mirrim are included, (likely a quietly observant comment by McCaffrey on how male only institutions first made women exceptions to the rule before changing the rules). Yet, there are still a few things which are uncomfortably backward, such as when the loud mouthed Lord’s son Tordril speaks to Jaxum of “the Lord Holder’s prerogative,” regarding the women of the hold, and how it’s perfectly alright for Jaxum to “get a few halfbloods.” Not that we see the usually decent natured Jaxum actually take concubines the way his evil father, or (at least by implication), the southern dragon riders apparently do. Yet, Jaxum’s first romance; if that is the right word is definitely not handled well.

Seeking for an excuse to train Ruth in chewing firestone, Jaxum stops off at a small farm and catches the eye of the pretty Korana. Deciding that spending time with Korana would make a good excuse to train his dragon, Jaxum then discovers Korana’s company might actually be pleasant in and of itself. Though McCaffery makes it quite clear; through Ruth’s psychic link, that Korana is definitely willing (unlike the unpleasantness with Brekke in Dragonquest), the casual, almost sideline way both Jaxum and indeed McCaffery treat this relationship is dreadful.

The entire thing is described in short, time skip sections with us mostly just getting the gist of a meeting rather than getting Korana’s words and actions directly. Though McCaffery occasionally mentions Korana’s “shy smile,” or Jaxum “stealing kisses,” we don’t actually get any idea what Korana thinks, or even that she thinks at all, indeed Jaxum’s loss of virginity is dealt with so offhandedly it might as well be a routine medical appointment.

Jaxum occasionally wonders about bringing Korana to live in Ruatha hold with him, or gifting her a fire lizard egg, however nothing like this materialises, indeed throughout the book Korana basically feels like a sex doll, especially when other characters start treating her the same way (one occasion in which Menolly asks Jaxum if he’s “enjoying Korana” was actively painful, as well as rather out of character for the usually caring harper). Half way through as the action moves away from Ruatha hold, Jaxum mostly forgets Korana and she falls off the map. Indeed, both my lady and I thought we remembered a scene that finished the relationship, with Jaxum parting from Korana on friendly terms, though either this turns up in a later book, or we are doing some mental editing and assuming that the mostly nice natured young man we see elsewhere behaved the same way off screen. For a writer who is usually as careful with characters as McCaffery, the dismissal of Korana here was definitely a major miss. Whether this was an attempt to show what McCaffery (writing in the 1970’s), believed to be a “male perspective,” or simply that McCaffery (like Jaxum and the rest of Pern), apparently didn’t find Korana to be of much importance I’m not sure.

I also wasn’t comfortable with the way McCaffery dealt with dragon mating. Weyr leader D’ram decides to open a mating flight to all bronze dragons on Pern, meaning that the rider of the gold dragon being mated would end up having sex with the rider of the successful bronze, despite the fact she’s definitely with someone else at the time. Dragon mating, from the books I’ve read, seems one of the few parts of Pern’s culture which McCaffery did not flesh out correctly, thus leading to a lot of speculation, for example, whether the male riders of female green dragons are actually all gay, or simply engage in occasional homosexual sex during mating; I admit the idea that you could get a gay man by putting together a straight man and a female dragon seems extremely dodgy to me. And to what extent the sexuality of a dragon and which dragon it mates with actually influences both the rider’s sexual activity during the mating flight, and their relationships afterwards. In practice McCaffery seems to use dragon mating (as she did in Dragonflight), to basically insure that the right boys end up with the right girls, (apparently not thus far in the series the right boys). However, the idea that basically a gold rider (or possibly green), is put up as essentially the prize in a contest of who has the fastest dragon is not one its pleasant to think about too closely, especially considering that while some mating flights are over and done with and the riders in question move on afterwards, others (despite occasional references to dragon rider promiscuity), apparently remain married permanently.

Of course, when dealing with a medieval society we can’t expect modern attitudes, either with Lord Holder’s casual hook-ups or female dragonriders. However, the fact that McCaffery gives us neither the information, nor the perspectives of Korana or the queen riders on these things, does mean that the view of Pern we get is quite one sided, albeit in fairness to McCaffery (a woman who was after all born nearly a century ago), she probably assumed that most women born into Pernese arrangements would be moderately happy with the culture they grew up in, and that those who weren’t such as Menolly and Lessa would work to gradually change the culture and expectations over time, as indeed we see in the series.

Fortunately, not all the romance in this book is quite as problematic as Korana and the dragons. When Jaxum actually has a serious romance it is depicted surprisingly well (particularly having read Dragondrumbs first. I liked the fact the person he finds is both very gentle, and quite independent (rather like a certain lady I’m married to), and though I do wish he’d spared a thought for poor Korana, I did appreciate it when he finally stepped up, grew a metaphorical spine and decided he was actually going to do something about taking control of his destiny.

My only issue here is that in order to give Jaxum an antagonist, or at least an obstacle, McCaffery had to show a very nasty chauvinistic side (even by Pern standards), to a character who’d previously been okay, though a bit full of himself. Indeed, I’m reliably informed that said character becomes a villain for the rest of the series as well, likely because the southern Dragonrider’s plot was getting stale. Of course, as a place where (gender niggles aside), people mostly solve problems with reason, Pern did need another bad guy to stop matters getting static, just as Jaxum needed a final obstacle to overcome in order to complete his journey, however, McCaffery would have been better coming up with a new villain (there are after all those quarrelling Lord’s sons and probably some nasty daughters as well), rather than having to embadden a relatively reasonable character. This is a tendency I’ve seen in some of McCaffery’s other books such as Crystal Singer, if she runs out of villains, someone will be getting an upgrade.

One aspect of the plot I appreciated rather more as an adult than I did as a teenager was a major conspiracy of kindness. Indeed, it’s possible that McCaffery gave characters like Lessa and Piemur a little extra teeth as a contrast to a large portion of the plot involving most of Pern, human and dragon cooperating to save the life and aid the recovery of one particularly beloved person.

Unfortunately, I was a little spoiled for the book’s final section, since despite Jaxum’s confrontation, most of the book’s climax involves revelations about Pern’s past. Had I not previously read the prequel Dragonsdawn, I likely would have found these revelations fascinating and been on tenterhooks to find out more. Unfortunately, as I read Dragonsdawn rather early in my Pern career, I knew what was going to be found ahead of time. That being said, I did feel here more in touch with the characters (even the sarcastic ones), so could empathise more at this point with their reactions to the revelations than I did before.

The White Dragon is regarded by many; including my father in law, as one of the best Pern books, and there is no denying that the thing Pern is most famous for, namely its dragons, and the psychic friendship between dragon and rider is the best element of the plot here. However, ponderous politics and a rather fractured structure, not to mention Jaxum’s uncharacteristic unkindness to Korana mean that this one wasn’t quite as enjoyable as it could be. There is however, still a lot here to like, mysteries of Pern’s past, a sweet romance (if you forget its precursor), and several beautifully drawn moments surrounding a particularly lovable character.

So, though I definitely enjoyed the Harper Hall books more, I’d still say if you’re a Pern fan, this one is worth the journey.

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