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Dragonquest by Anne McCaffrey

Published by Del Rey Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

At the end of Dragonflight, Lessa resolved the seemingly hopeless shortage of dragons by traveling into Pern's past and bringing forth the dragonriders of the five abandoned Weyrs. When they arrived they were hailed as Pern's saviors, and the modern Pernese were happy to reward them for their bravery in every imaginable way..

However, even amidst all the rejoicing there were dark hints that things would not go well. The most prominent of the Oldtimer Weyrleaders, T'ron of Fort Weyr, was already chuckling privately about how he could squeeze the common folk for all they were worth. Even the most enthusiastic welcome is apt to be worn out in time by such blatant greed.

As it happens, it takes only seven Turns (Pernese years) for things to go sour. Part of it is simple culture shock -- in four centuries untold tiny changes in custom and usage that are invisible to those who live through them have built up to the point that coming forward is more like moving to a different world. Deferences that were automatic in the old days have fallen by the wayside as people had little cause to interact with the folk of a single Weyr, but for dragonfolk who had been accustomed to them on a daily basis, their sudden absence uptime is not only disorienting, but profoundly offensive. Even dragonfolk who are not arrogant in their privileged rank often find it difficult to adjust these unconscious expectations and avoid reacting to the absence of expected usages as an affront.

Dragonquest marks the movement of the focus of the Pern novels away from Lessa, who had been the principle driver of the plot of Dragonflight, but now becomes only one of many important POV characters. For instance, Master Robinton, who had been a bit character in Dragonflight, existing primarily to deliver the all-important clue which points Lessa in the right direction to resolve the problem of the lost Weyrs, now becomes a major character with motivations of his own. In the very first scene we get to see him struggling with a new song by which he hopes to deal with the rising hostilities by reminding everyone of their feudal obligations -- and thus deftly bringing the reader up to speed on all the things that have happened in the time since the seemingly triumphant ending of Dragonflight.

Weyrleader F'lar and his brother F'nor also become characters in their own right rather than simply supports or foils to Lessa's struggles as a result of the crisis of leadership being created by T'ron's intransigence. Similarly, we begin to see more of the motivations of the various Lords Holder, not merely as opposition to F'lar's insistence that the all-devouring space fungus Thread will indeed return, but as real people with complex motivations, engaging in various forms of political maneuvering within the feudal network of interlocking obligations.

And among those Lords Holder is the boy Jaxom, whom we last saw as an infant, hardly a character so much as a plot device to allow Lessa to surrender her claim to Ruatha Hold so that she could go to Benden Weyr and Impress the queen dragon Ramoth and become Weyrwoman to the sole surviving community of dragonriders. He is still a boy, still under the regency of the Lord Warder Lytol who was once a dragonrider and who has spent a great deal of time drumming into this young mind the absolute importance of honoring dragonkind, but the position he inherited at birth makes him no ordinary boy. Thus what in other boys his age would be nothing more than youthful exuberance and mischief is a very serious matter indeed.

For instance, his lark with Flessan, son of Flar and Lessa, during a visit to Benden Weyr. It is common for the children of the Weyr to go sneaking through some of the back passageways, trying to discover forgotten chambers or simply seeing how far they can get with a weak and dying glow or two. But when Jaxom does it and becomes lost, finding him becomes a matter of such utmost importance that the entire Weyr is turned out to search for him. When he and Felessan are found passed out on the threshold of a chamber that may well have been sealed since the time of the original colonists -- a time which has been completely forgotten in the intervening centuries -- the close call becomes the subject of a very stern scolding about how much depends upon him.

But the contents of that chamber may well hold the answer to an even more pressing problem than fears for the succession to Ruatha should some boyish foolishness of Jaxom's bring him to harm before he has time to sire an heir. For the Lords Holder and Craftsmasters, growing resentful of the increasing demands of the Oldtimer Weyrleaders for the restoration of obligations long since faded into disuse, have been grumbling once again about "parasitic" dragonfolk. Although they have been willing to support the dragonfolk so long as the alternative was the utter destruction of their wealth, they do not intend to do it to the point of impoverishing themselves to give the Weyrs luxuries they themselves enjoy. And they would far prefer to find some way to destroy Thread at its source once and for all rather than pay for the upkeep of dragonriders indefinintely.

Except dragons cannot teleport without good co-ordinates -- to attempt is to risk being stranded forever between. But if one of the strange optical devices in that sealed room can give them the capacity to see the Red Star in far finer detail than possible with the naked eye, it might actually be possible to go there. It's a mad hope, but F'nor, all too aware of his half-brother's precarious position of leadership, is willing to gamble it in hopes of bringing some kind of peace to the squabbling leadership of a world besieged.

Dragonquest is a more complicated book than the relatively linear and straightforward Dragonflight, with several interwoven storylines. However, at times it can be difficult to keep track of them, and the intricacies of political infighting are not quite so immediately grabbing as the desperate race against time to gain enough dragons to fight Thread.

It is interesting to note the development of the culture of Pern at this point. On one hand, the feudal culture still retains a good bit of the gritty roughness that can be expected of a culture at the tech level that is portrayed, rather than being softened to the more PC pastel tones of some of the later novels. It is still considered socially improper for the lowly to criticize their betters, even for legitimate grievances, as opposed to the more democratic attitudes shown in some of the most recent Pern books. Gender roles still reflect the importance of testosterone-driven upper-body strength in a world without machine power to lighten labor.

At the same time, there is still a fair amount of the unconscious acceptance of violence in relations between men and women which makes Dragonflight an awkward read for modern sensibilities. We don't see so much of F'lar slapping or shaking Lessa to calm her down, but that may be simply because their relationship is no longer front and center as it was in the first book. But there is still that whole "bodice-ripper" undertone of the good girl who is properly shy of sex, but who warms up under the rough but irresistible attentions of the right man. I am thinking primarily of Brekke, whose shrinking-violet reactions to learning what it means to be a queenrider is sharply contrasted with the sexual wantonness of the villainous Kylara, and who is taken by F'nor on a trip that turns into a seduction that is dangerously close to an assault. But she knows that he means well, to the point she actually ends up bonding with him -- and thus creating yet another problem because F'nor's dragon Canth is a brown, a subtype of male that traditionally does not compete in the mating flights.

And then the whole problem of Brekke's reluctance is resolved in the most horrible way imaginable, as the wicked Kylara is consorting with the equally vile Lord Holder Meron, not caring that her dragon Prideth is close to mating and arousal is transmitted through the telepathic link between dragon and rider. And queens are extremely jealous when in their mating flight, and will battle to the death. So instead of merely having to deal with the possibility of a joining that will be little better than rape, Brekke has the mind-shattering horror of losing her bonded dragon as the result of another's irresponsibility. It almost feels like Anne McCaffrey couldn't figure out how to get Brekke through the mating flight believably and decided to turn her into a Tragic Victim and thus removing the dragon that is the whole source of the problem.

Still, on the whole Dragonquest is still a fairly readable book, and in many ways stronger than the later books of the series. The biggest thing is to recognize that it's a product of the time in which it was originally written, and read it accordingly.

Review posted April 15, 2009

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