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Dragon Harper by Anne McCaffrey and Todd McCaffrey

Cover art by Paul Youll

Published by Del Rey Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Approaching yet another Pern collaboration that's a part of Anne McCaffrey's process of handing her world over to her son Todd, I hoped that perhaps Todd's skills had improved and this volume would read more like the old Pern that I remembered and enjoyed so much. Unfortunately, I was underwhelmed by the level of skill and grasp of the essential Pern that this book demonstrates.

At the end of Dragon's Kin, Kindan left behind his family's mining camp after the watch-wher he'd been raising re-bonded to another, leaving him free to follow his dream of becoming a Harper. So now we have the story of him attaining that dream -- but of course we couldn't have a story if everything's great. There's got to be trouble, and it shows up in the most obvious form, a bully he has to defeat without getting in trouble for unseemly fighting. But of course that's easier said than done, since he's a teenage male who's grown up in a society heavily predicated upon values of face and honor, in which one cannot be seen to back down from a fight and still be seen as manly.

But that's not enough to carry a story of novel length, so we've got to have a bigger crisis. Remember that mysterious plague that was running among the Shunned in Dragon's Fire? Well, it seems like it's suddenly decided to start getting really virulent, sweeping through one population center after another, with mortality rates typical of a virgin field epidemic (think what happened to the native peoples of the Americas and Australia when they were first exposed to European diseases).

So Kindan's got to be a hero and find the answer in the Archives, even as the plague enters Fort Hold and Harper Hall. In outline form, it sounds like a tense and dynamic storyline, but in execution it disappoints. For instance, take the scene in which Kindan and his friends are working in the Archives and the torch they're using for illumination to read a particularly puzzling passage of one Record gets dropped and sets a whole section of Records alight. I'm sure it was intended to raise the stakes by creating the fear that the precious bit of knowledge they're trying so desperately to find might well have been destroyed. Instead, it reads more like Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau, trying to interrogate a suspect and in the process managing to destroy countless priceless antiques, including a grand piano that had once belonged to a famous composer. Except when Peter Sellers does it, it's actually meant to be funny.

Reports are coming in of whole Holds deserted, or at least of so many ill that there is no one left to care for the dead, to send the drum messages reporting the situation. A plague several orders of magnitude of that in Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern, of which this novel is increasingly reading as a bad rehash of.

And then all his friends start falling ill and dying around him, in achingly poignant drawn-out scenes of suffering with big emotional speeches. Now there is a certain point to letting close friends of the protagonist die on-stage. By bursting the "bubble of invulnerability" that often surrounds the protagonist and his or her really good friends, by letting someone the protagonist (and through him or her, the reader) knows personally to actually die of the plague or other looming threat, the author serves us notice that no character is automatically safe, and thus we are just a little bit more on edge through to the end of the book.

But it is also a spice to be used sparingly. Kill off too many major characters, and instead of increasing the tension, it just makes us feel like the volume is being turned up louder and louder. Pathos gives way to bathos, to the point that it becomes ridiculous instead of poignant. For instance, take the death scene of Kindan's old enemy, the bully Vaxoram, who has since learned the errors of his ways and become one of Kindan's best friends and closest allies in the battle against the plague. He'd dreamed of finally becoming a journeyman, so as he lies dying Kindan encourages him to visualize himself walking the tables (the ritual by which a new-made journeyman Harper's promotion is publicly acknowledged, which was described so movingly in the conclusion of Dragonsinger). It's supposed to movingly demonstrate their solidarity and his worthiness, but it felt like a sham, as nothing but New-Age woo-woo like the stuff about crystals that has started showing up in these later books (Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover novels had magical crystals that could boost telepathic powers, but Pern was always about the telepathic bond between human and dragon).

And as it turns out, the mysterious verse that they were trying so desperately to read when they accidentally set the Archives on fire isn't key to stopping the plague. It's a complete red herring, and instead good sanitation and good nutrition enable them to stop the spread of the disease so that it sort of burns itself out -- but not before it's wiped out something like two thirds or three fourths of Pern's population. And that includes all the senior members of the Harper Hall, which leads us to the final scene in which Kindan reconstitutes its leadership by having the best journeymen in each field elevate themselves to Masters. Apparently we are supposed to believe that they simply rise to the occasion and are magically gifted with the ability to carry out their new duties with the same excellence that usually comes only with decades of experience and slow, steady advancement through the ranks.

I'm sorry, but this novel reads all too much like a certain kind of fanfic that tends to be characterized by overblown super-high-stakes conflict, big-emo confrontations and painful deaths involving long, drawn-out speeches, and wildly implausible development of competence in junior characters being suddenly promoted far beyond their age and experience as a result of world-shaking Disasters. We've all read about the adventures of Lieutenant Mary Sue in her various incarnations, but seeing a thinly-disguised version of it presented as a professional continuation of a series we used to like is quite jarring. Maybe teenage readers who are just discovering Pern will enjoy it, but quite honestly, I have no real interest in re-reading it. Heck, I was barely able to make myself go back through it to find the most egregious examples of problems with it.

Review posted December 20, 2009.

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