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Dragonsblood by Todd McCaffrey

Cover art by Les Edwards

Published by Del Rey Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

This novel marks the first Pern novel written entirely by Todd McCaffrey, son of Pern's creator, Anne McCaffrey. Unfortunately, after my extreme disappointment in the previous volume, I approached this news with considerable trepidation. Although I'd held some faint hope of being happily surprised and discovering that Todd McCaffrey had made a quantum leap in his skills as a writer, I found myself sadly disappointed by this novel.

In the previous volume, Dragon Harper, Pern was swept by a devastating plague which killed as much as 75% of the population. Whole Holds were left without enough people to care for the ill and maintain communications by drum relay with the rest of Pern. In other words, we are talking about the kind of mortality rates that cause civilization to come unzipped and societies to undergo a devolutionary spiral to much lower levels of technological ability, for the simple reason that there aren't enough people to do the basic things that there can be an elite of specialists doing non-essential things. And by non-essential, I'm talking anything that's not an immediate survival need like food, clothing and shelter.

But at the beginning of this novel, Pernese society is shown as continuing to function relatively normally. There's no evidence of massive psychological trauma from the survivors having lost huge numbers of the people they knew and cared for, let alone any problems providing basic services to the people leading to the breakdown of higher levels of social functioning such as the cultural transmission of important information to future generations.

Instead, their primary concern seems to be the upcoming Pass of the Red Star and the Thread it will bring. And not so much because the Weyrs are left understrength by the plague that just swept through them as the prosaic concern as to whether the skills they'd carefully preserved through endless drills over the past two centuries will prove equal to the actuality of Thread. And the politics of the Weyr, tied as it is with draconic biology and mating patterns.

For there's a new clutch of eggs on the hatching sands, and among them is a golden queen egg. And into this situation comes Lorana, the semi-outcast girl from Dragon Harper who unexpectedly Impresses the queen Airith who hatches from it. So suddenly she's catapulted from the bottom of Pern's social ladder to its elite, even as she's willingly shouldering the responsibilities that her new relationship entails with almost fanatical ferverence.

However, the Hatching scene had one major element that really bothered me. Because of the recent plague, there is a shortage of suitable candidates to be put on the sands (the only real, substantial effect of the plague that I could even pick up), and there is serious concern that if one of the hatchlings cannot find a suitable person to Impress, it will go between and suicide. This is so completely contrary to anything I'd seen in any previous Pern books that it really shook my willing suspension of disbelief. There'd been incidents in earlier books of surprise Impressions of people in the audience, but never in any of what I think of as the "classic" Pern books was it even hinted as a possibility that a dragon would suicide rather than find an acceptable human, even if it meant the hatchling having to lower its standards somewhat and make the best of what was available.

And it was carried through in the scene of a firelizard Hatching as well, when the fumble-fingered children prove inept at handling the hatchlings. This is completely contrary to the scene in Dragonsong, in which it is made pretty clear that firelizards that are not Impressed simply go wild. The only reason the one little blue went between was it's having been mortally wounded by Thread as it went outside of the cave in order to hunt for its first meal.

As if all this retroactive rewriting of continuity weren't bad enough, Lorana's firelizards are suddenly stricken with a mysterious illness and jump between -- as it turns out, backwards in time to the era of the settlement, where they fall into the hands of Wind Blossom, daughter of dragon creator Kitty Ping and herself creator of the watch-whers. So now we've got a monster violation of continuity, not only throwing out the fundamental idea that dragons and their kin do not fall ill, and entangling two disparate time periods in a complex time-travel story that seems to be primarily for the purpose of explaining the science room that appeared way back in Dragonquest, since Dragonsdawn had demolished the old theory that it had been used to genetically engineer the dragons and watch-whers from firelizards.

Oh, and by the way, remember that mysterious song in the Archives in Dragon Harper, the one that Kindan and company were trying to get a better look at when they dropped the torch and burned a bunch of Records? The one that was a complete red herring for that book? Well, now it finally turns out to actually be important -- it's the message Wind Blossom left for Lorana, to guide her to the secret rooms and the precious serums that she's leaving to save the dragons from the plague that's wiping them out. And the "dragon gold" in which the price is paid is not some kind of coinage, but her beloved golden Airith.

Because when Lorana and her friends first break into the secret rooms in Benden Weyr, they get into the last room first, and thus Lorana has no idea what she's doing or why, and instead of mixing a life-saving serum manages to produce a deadly poison. And since she's a good, self-sacrificing character, she's not going to risk anybody else's dragon before she puts her own -- and thus her sanity -- on the line. So she ends up watching in horror as poor Airith starts undergoing horrific transformations, then flinging herself between times to provide Wind Blossom with the final clue she needs to understand what is happening in the future.

Unfortunately, it ends up reading like the capstone of a story of continually escalating bathos, until we feel like the author is screaming at us, "This is Terrible, This Is REALLY DANGEROUS, YOU MUST BELIEVE ME." Because, quite honestly, just making the stakes bigger and scarier doesn't necessarily increase reader involvement with the story, if it's done in a ham-handed way as this is.

And even after Lorana does finally get things right, by going through the other two rooms to be taught the all-important theory behind those four mysterious vials so that she finally knows that the fourth one is a fall-back in case the serum made by combining the first three fail to save the dragons, so that they can re-engineer watch-whers into dragons, it still feels forced and over-done. Of course there's resistance, and of course she is able to win the confidence of the dragonriders by showing that she has already made the sacrifice, losing her own dragon in her disastrous first effort, and is not going to be risking their dragons lightly.

Except there's one wrinkle -- there's only enough serum to treat one queen dragon. So now we finally get the explanation for why Benden's Weyrwoman has been an utter, colossal bitch for the past three years -- she's been timing it, stretching herself thin by living the same period twice over, in order to give her precious clutch time in the past to grow and produce enough serum-bearing plasma to treat all the dragons of Pern in time to save them so they can fly tomorrow's Threadfall.

The whole thing reads to me like a fan story of the hurt/comfort style, in which horrible things just keep happening to the main character so that we can see how pure and noble and worthy of our sympathy he or she is. The writing may be more professional, but it still doesn't feel like the classic Pern that originally drew me to the series. It feels like the author needs to write more Pern stories, but can't really come up with any new ideas, and is just recycling the notion of a plague threatening all Pern and dialing up the stakes higher and higher so that we know this plague is even more terrible than the previous ones and Pern really is on the very edge of destruction and so forth.

I hate to say it, but I would just as soon have seen Anne McCaffrey get her way when she tried to put Pern to rest with All the Weyrs of Pern. It was pretty clear to me that she was telling us that she had said all she really had to say about that world and wanted to move on to other worlds -- but the realities of commercial publication wouldn't let her, any more than they were willing to let Sir Arthur Conan Doyle put Sherlock Holmes to rest by throwing him over the Reichenbach Falls.

Which means that, unfortunately, as long as people keep buying these new Pern books, we will keep seeing more and more books recycling Pern, finding new ways to threaten the poor planet with bigger and scarier dangers, yet never really capturing the engaging characterization that was what really pulled me into the original six Pern books way back in the 1980's.

Review posted December 20, 2009.

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