Dragonheart by Todd McCaffrey
Cover art by Les Edwards
Published by Del Rey Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
This novel covers roughly the same events as the first half of Dragonsblood. However, while that novel dealt with the struggles of Lorena the Benden junior weyrwoman to fight the mysterious plague sweeping through the dragons upon which Pern depends for its defenses against the destructive incursions of Thread, this novel focuses upon Fiona, sole surviving daughter of Lord Bemin of Fort Hold. She was all Bemin had left after an earlier plague swept through Pern's human population (back in Dragon Harper, which I found to be a disappointing rehash of ideas already covered far better in Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern). She was supposed to be his heir, to wed a young man of suitably lordly blood, and provide continuity for Fort Hold's bloodline.
Except in the very first scene of this book, she's visiting a Hatching and the queen dragon rejects all the Candidates to come climbing into the stands to Impress her. Suddenly Fiona's whole life is turned upside down as she adjusts to Weyr life and the responsibilities of a dragon.
The unexpected Impression of someone not intended as a Candidate goes all the way back to the second book, Dragonquest, and young Lord Jaxom's impression of the runt white dragon Ruth. However, this Impression scene simply doesn't have that sort of emotional impact for me. In fact, it feels almost like a Mary Sue of the sort that fanfic is routinely excoriated for. Fiona strikes me as just too mature, too responsible, too quick to adjust to having her life upended -- and this is a young woman who's already survived one major trauma, even if she was young enough that she probably didn't have any clear memories of it.
And quite honestly, the entire book reads like your stereotypical bad fanfic. Not that it's badly written in a technical sense -- the prose is competently written and edited, and all the pieces of a working story are in place. After all, this is a professionally published book from a major publishing house, so we can rest assured that editors have gone over it and made sure that there aren't major blunders that would cost the publisher their investment.
Part of it seems to be a sort of assumption that Of Course the reader is going to be interested in the world and will want to read more about it, and as such, the author does not need to work as hard to draw the reader in, to earn the reader's investment in continuing through to the end. A lot of fanfic is written by fans for fans, frequently in fandoms so hungry for more material about their favorite worlds and characters that they're willing to go to great lengths to seek it out. As such, fanfic authors have a readymade audience, which means that they can concentrate their efforts on other aspects of storytelling.
It's true that Pern is a long-established series with a steady fan-base that can't get enough of their favorite world. Probably a lot of readers could care less about whether the story really grabs them and won't let go. They're perfectly content to take a more leisurely trip through -- and the fact that this is another look at a story we've already read probably adds to that feel. Not only is "looking at the familiar story events from another character's POV" a common fanfic exercise, but it also means that certain forms of suspense are lessened by the sheer fact that anyone who's read Dragonsblood will already know a lot of the key events, and where the overall course of the story is going to go. The only suspense that can be generated in this book for long-term readers can be the question of what exactly happens to individual characters who weren't named in the earlier novel, which may be why the narrative focus often seems to lie more in showing us the picaresque world of Pern rather than taking us on a heart-stopping adventure.
And quite honestly, that's how Fiona's whole sojourn in the past of Igen Weyr feels. Yes, there's the desperate need for the Pern of her present for the young dragons and riders she's helping to train, but while they're in the past, it all seems to be at a remove, so that there really isn't all that much tension. It's something that they need to deal with, but their time-traveling has given them enough time that they can get it done, as long as they can handle the effects of existing in two places in one time upon their minds. So they seem almost relaxed as they work together with the Arab-derived Trader clan to provision the Weyr and get them through that vital period.
In addition to the general lack of tension and urgency which seems to hang over the whole book, there's the feeling that the book isn't quite squared with the original mechanics of how Pern works, particularly the relationship of dragon and rider. That sense that what we are reading is a blurred copy of a copy of a copy of the original Pern we remembered from those six original books that came out way back when. Part of it may be simply the problem that any long-running series eventually runs into: it must not simply rehash the same old elements endlessly, but in the process of opening new vistas, it must not lose the elements that drew the original fan base to love it.
However, I think there's more than that. It really does feel like someone dutifully copying the key elements of Pern without truly grasping the heart of what makes it Pern. For instance, take the suicides of dying dragons and their riders -- it's been established from the very beginning that a mortally injured dragon goes between to die, and that riders hope to be able to accompany their dragons rather than be left behind forever bereft. Yet there is something absurd in the sheer deliberateness with which the plague-stricken dragons and their riders make their final flights into oblivion, almost like a thanatophilic ballet that descends from pathos into bathos.
By the time I got finished reading this book, I'd become truly convinced that it's time for us to say good-bye to Pern. As long as there are new things to say with a series, it's always fun to pay the world yet another visit. But when it starts feeling that the author is just trudging back again for the money, or in a misguided effort to please clamoring fans, it's better to just let go and move on to other vistas. There are few things more painful than a series that seems to just shamble on like the living dead, and I really hate seeing Pern start down that ugly road.
Review posted April 30, 2011
Buy Dragonheart: Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern (The Dragonriders of Pern) from Amazon.com