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Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey

Published by Del Ray

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

The first installment in a series that has become a phenomenon in its own right, Dragonflight started life as the expansion of a novella printed in Analog under the editorship of John W. Campbell under the title of "Weyr Search." The novella, with some modifications, became the first section of Dragonflight under the same title.

It's a relatively straightforward story of a young woman living in hiding under the nose of a conqueror who would slay her if he knew her true identity. Lessa is the sole surviving child of the murdered Lord Holder of Ruatha Hold, who survived the massacre of her family by the usurper Fax almost by accident. Since then she has toiled as a kitchen drudge for her bread, all the time using her telepathic ability to subtly set things awry so that the value of Ruatha Hold to its conqueror has been systematically destroyed.

McCaffrey paints a grittily realistic portrayal of a people under duress in a pre-Industrial society, which is a stark contrast to the more prettified and politically correct society she has been portraying in the more recent books. Gender roles are divided according to the need for testosterone-driven upper-body strength, as is typical in agrarian cultures. The drudges are simply manual laborers of the lower class, and their number and treatment is realistic for a society at the tech level portrayed (none of the nonsense that is put forth later about how only the developmentally disabled or other individuals who are unable to function in more demanding and fulfilling jobs become drudges, apparently an outgrowth of the portrayal of Camo in the Harper Hall trilogy).

In fact, the most remarkable element of the story for the time in which McCaffrey wrote it is Lessa's role as active protagonist. She is no passive damsel in distress waiting for her knight in shining armor to rescue her. She may have to work by subterfuge, but she very deliberately recognizes her chance to first humiliate and then destroy the hated usurper Fax when F'lar and his dragonriders arrive on Search. At each point in the story she carefully observes the developing situation and adjusts her tactics and techniques as things progress. Finally she is able to manipulate Fax into not only renouncing the Hold to his unborn child, but also to a duel with F'lar, a duel which ends with Fax lying dead on the floor and Lady Gemma in premature labor with a child not expected to live.

But it is enough that when F'lar's dragon Mnementh identifies Lessa as the source of the power in the half-ruined Hold, he is able to convince her to cede her claim on Ruatha in favor of the boy and leave for Benden Weyr, where a golden queen egg lies near to Hatching on the incubation sands. So off she goes on dragonback, arriving just in the nick of time and watching the clumsy golden hatchling maul two girls before coming to her and making telepathic contact, changing her life forever.

It is interesting to compare the Hatching scene with those in later Pern novels. We already have the element of peak experience, taking the reader right along with the characters to an emotional high. However, at the same time the interaction between dragons and their potential riders is much rougher-- even as early in the series as Dragonquest it would be unthinkable to have someone actually killed by a hatchling as is at least one and quite possibly two of the young women being presented to the queen egg (one girl's neck is broken, and another has her entire torso torn open by one of Ramoth's claws). This fits with the general pattern of Pernese life being much more violent and grittier than would later be the case (heck, there are even references of tapestries of battles not against Thread, but between human armies, something that becomes completely beyond the pale, to the point that the very possibility of dragon fighting dragon over the stolen queen egg in The White Dragon is a subject for horror).

However, the emotional high that Lessa hits at t he conclusion of the original novella can't be allowed to last for long when the story is continued at novel length. She may now be the rider of the golden queen dragon, and thus the Weyrwoman, second-in-command of the Weyr, but she is also brand-new in her position. Thus she must be trained, and this duty falls upon the old Weyrleader, R'gul, and his buddy S'lel.

R'gul is fairly the embodiment of the hidebound traditionalist, to the point he almost becomes a caricature rather than a character. His idea of training a Weyrwoman in her duties is to have her write out all the traditional teaching ballads ten times each. Attempts to discuss their meanings are met with annoyance to the point it is clear he regards questions as an affront to his authority. In fact, he seems to exist primarily to provide an obstacle for Lessa to batter her way past -- and of course a very good reason to make sure that F'lar's Mnementh mates with Ramoth when the queen dragon rises to mate. (It's also interesting that he pretty much disappears altogether from the narrative at that point -- Anne McCaffrey is unable to turn her strawman antagonist into a real character, unlike for instance Eric Flint, who took the character of John Chandler Simpson, who in 1632 existed primarily for Mike Stearns to defeat in an election, and in the sequel 1633 turned him into an honorable and complex naval officer).

For the leadership of a Weyr is held by the rider of the bronze dragon who mates the queen dragon -- this seems to be at least partly based upon draconic social behavior, for other dragons will follow the lead of the queen and her mate, rather like a pack of wolves will follow the alpha male and female. However, because of the telepathic linkages between dragon and rider, the mating flight also results in the rider of the successful dragon having sex with the Weyrwoman -- and not just amidst the emotional high of draconic mating urges. It's understood that the two of them will continue to have a relationship, which helps to strengthen the bond between their dragons and ensure stability of leadership when the next mating flight occurs.

Lessa has already become emotionally bonded with F'lar, so the bodice-ripper elements of the process aren't dwelt upon overmuch, but for the alert they can be somewhat unsettling. More disturbing to modern sensibilities is the way in which the two of them relate once they have settled in to their new roles. There are several points at which F'lar slaps or shakes Lessa to bring her out of a hysterical panic or other emotional overreaction. They're never dwelt upon, and many historical agrarian cultures have regarded the use of corporal punishment by a man against his woman as acceptable, so long as it did not cause actual injuries. Still, for the alert reader they diminish the innocence of what otherwise would be a straightforward adventure.

However, the average reader is apt to be more focused upon the constant stream of crises faced by the protagonists. No sooner than Lessa has finally pushed her way past the traditionalist objections and learned to ride Ramoth, and to even fly between, F'lar has to face down an alliance of Lords Holder who are certain that Thread is naught but an old legend made up to justify the endless expropriations of goods from the Holds by the Weyr, and who intend to put a stop to it. And then Thread does indeed begin to fall, and it becomes clear that their one woefully understrength Weyr is not going to be able to protect an entire continent, even with all the tricks they can develop. An attempt to buy themselves time using the dragons' ability to travel through time ends in disaster, for the riders who've doubled back on themselves rapidly become drained of energy and unable to sustain the queens that are supposed to breed the extra dragons they desperately need.

Finally they find a clue in an ancient song, delivered by the Masterharper Robinton. In this scene he is merely a spear-carrier, existing solely to deliver this vital bit of information, but in subsequent novels he quickly takes on a life of his own.

And then Lessa takes off on her most daring exploit ever. It's her bright shining moment, but unfortunately it's also the last point at which she really has a starring role. In Dragonquest she begins to take a secondary role to F'lar's struggles for the leadership of the Weyrs, and by The White Dragon she has become reduced to a cranky harridan who seems to exist primarily to oppose the fire lizards and threaten war between the Weyrs. It's a sad diminishment for a fine strong female protagonist who excelled at a time when a lot of women authors were still confining themselves to male protagonists (even Marion Zimmer Bradley didn't dare write a strong female protagonist until well into the seventies, with The Shattered Chain).

Review posted April 15, 2009

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