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Dragon's Fire by Anne McCaffrey and Todd McCaffrey

Cover art by Paul Youll

Published by Del Rey Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

When I originally discovered the original Dragonriders of Pern and Harper Hall trilogies, I loved them. I was swept up by the richness of the detail, the peak emotional experience of a Hatching and Impression. I really cared about Lessa and Menolly and Jaxom and their struggles to find their places in a world very different from our own.

But I've got a confession to make: I had a terrible time getting into this story. For almost two years it sat on my shelf and I would periodically read a few pages, trying to get into the story but never quite succeeding, never quite being able to care for the characters enough to want to charge ahead to the end. I finally managed to get it read only because I put myself in the situation where it was the only thing I had available to read.

I was pretty sure that it followed on after Dragon's Kin, yet I couldn't quite get excited about the harper Zist and his quest to investigate the situation of the Shunned, the outcasts of Pern, or his young mute companion Pellar. Even when there was talk of illness moving among the Shunned as they drifted from the fringes of one Hold to another, seeking some form of subsistence, it didn't really pique my curiosity enough to keep me going.

I think a big part of it was a certain flatness in the characterizations. None of the characters really have any overriding need which drives them. Compare Lessa's determination to avenge herself upon the usurper Fax after her entire family was murdered in their beds eight years earlier, or Menolly's struggles to become a Harper in spite of the sexist assumptions of her isolated seahold, or Jaxom's need to find a place for himself while torn in two different directions by the demands of being born to the position of Lord Holder and having Impressed the runt white dragon Ruth.

Even the attack on Pellar, the mute would-be harper, which kills his beloved fire-lizard and leaves him badly injured, didn't even have that much urgency to it. Yes, there was a certain poignancy, but it didn't have that wrenching power that makes you really care and want to see whoever did it to him get their just deserts.

Not to mention the whole silly business of how he heals himself by using crystals, carefully aligning them so their vibrational characteristics will support his natural healing energies as an old hermit taught him. I about threw the book against the nearest wall when I hit that. No, no, no, Pern is not Darkover. Marion Zimmer Bradley wrote about magic crystals that enhance telepathic powers, and they were one of the key characteristics of her Darkover series. But Pern has always centered on the relationship of humanity with the dragons and their kin, the firelizards and (to a lesser degree) the watch-whers.

And then we get into the second part, in which Tarik, the villain from Dragon's Kin is now a name-stripped prisoner in a penal mine, the one and only firestone mine on all of Pern. For it seems that firestone is a particularly dangerous substance, apt to explode violently when it comes in contact with water. Something as tiny as a careless person spitting to clean the mouth can cause an entire mine to go up. In one particularly vivid scene, the Games at a weyr are marred by a devastating explosion when a careless weyrling exposes his burden of firestone to a splash of water while delivering it to the senior dragons to be chewed so they may breathe fire.

And I'm going hold on just a minute, I don't remember firestone being so nasty dangerous in the original Dragonriders of Pern series. Sure, it was nothing to play around with, but neither was it something so nastily unstable -- nor was water something that set it off. So I'm starting to wonder if we've got a case of the new junior author simply tossing continuity out the window in order to tell the story he wants to tell, rather like Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson threw out significant elements established in the original Dune in their interquel Paul of Dune. I know some people think it's not a problem, because it leaves more latitude to tell more stories in the world, but to me, it's often destroying the very things that originally brought me to the first volumes in the series.

Oh, but then we discover that it's all a mistake, as Tarik's son Christov, already struggling with the stigma against him on account of his father's crimes, discovers while reading through records from the earliest days of Pern. If the original firelizards were seen eating firestone that was found right at the sea's edge, it couldn't be the same stuff they're now using. So what went wrong?

Apparently we are supposed to believe that somewhere in the first or second Interval somebody made a mistake and misidentified a similar substance as firestone. A deadly mistake, given this new firestone's extreme volatility -- and if all the knowledgeable firestone prospectors were at the same place, it could wipe them out all at once.

Or so Christov theorizes. Personally, I have trouble believing that just the loss of all the skilled miners trained to recognize real firestone would lead to everybody accepting the false firestone as the real thing, and more importantly, forgetting that firestone had formerly had different properties, to the point that everybody, even dragonriders, completely believed that it had always been this way. And doubly so, since this false firestone is described as causing the dragons considerable pain when they chew it, something that was never mentioned in any of the other Pern books, and given the extremely close mental and emotional bond between dragon and rider, something that would be immediately noticed and treated as considerable cause for concern.

I'm sorry, but as Marion Zimmer Bradley was wont to note, suspension of disbelief does not mean hanging by the neck until dead. Such extreme, sudden, and absolute historical amnesia simply doesn't happen. Somebody always notices and asks questions, and things of this severity tend to get dealt with, quickly.

So, in summation I would say that this is probably one of the weakest Pern books to date. If Anne McCaffrey had much input into the storyline, I'm afraid that she must be losing her touch, if not her sense of what Pern is. If it's already becoming mostly Todd's story, I sure hope he starts getting a better grasp of the real Pern soon, because this stuff leaves a sour taste in my mouth. I really need to go back and re-read the old stuff, especially the Harper Hall trilogy which doesn't have some of the problematical stuff that troubles the Dragonriders of Pern trilogy.

Review posted December 20, 2009.

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