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Dragon's Kin by Anne McCaffrey and Todd McCaffrey

Cover by Paul Youell

Published by Del Rey Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Dragon's Kin marks the beginning of Anne McCaffrey's process of handing her world over to her son Todd, who is her chosen successor. Instead of continuing the Ninth Pass thread which began with TheSkies of Pern and dealt with giving dragons a new role as defenders against meteors and other non-Thread dangers from the sky, they have gone back in time to Pern's early history, when the various aspects of Pernese society are still taking shape. Rather than taking place during a Pass, when Thread is actually falling, it takes place in the Interval between the Second and Third Passes, as Pern's population is expanding and developing new resources.

This novel is also noteworthy because it is the first novel to deal primarily with working class Pern. While most of the earlier novels have dealt with the aristocrats, the dragonriders and the Lords Holder, this novel deals with the lowly miners. And I am not merely talking about the overall social status of the miners in Pernese society. The mining camp in this story is relatively unimportant, and its members are low-ranking within the Minecraft. Even the most senior miner at Camp Natalon is no senior master of the Minecraft Hall, although he does hold the rank of master in his craft.

Furthermore, this story is significant because it is the first one to deal extensively with watch-whers, the "lesser" cousins of the revered dragons. Watch-whers go back to the very beginning of Pern -- in the beginning of Dragonflight, Lessa's only friend in her travails in occupied Ruatha Hold was its watch-wher, and she often would hide in its weyr at the Hold gates and take comfort from the presence of its mind. But once Lessa left Ruatha behind to become rider of golden Ramoth, it was as though Anne McCaffrey forgot about watch-whers altogether. There was never any mention of the Ruatha watch-wher being replaced in any of the Ruatha scenes in Dragonquest or The White Dragon, and there's not even a mention of its empty weyr. Nor is there any mention of a watch-wher at Fort Hold in any of the Harper Hall books, or any evidence of provision for housing one. There was a brief mention in Dragonsdawn of Wind Blossom's creation of watch-whers in her effort to duplicate her mother's creation of the dragons, but it was almost an afterthought, a nod acknowledging their existence, and they play no further role in that novel.

At the beginning of the story, Kindan is the son of a miner, but he longs to become a harper, one of the troubadors who keep Pernese society knitted together. But when his father is killed in a sudden, suspicious mining accident, he is faced with a wrenching choice. He can either continue his apprenticeship with the camp's Harper, or he can seek to Impress a new watch-wher to replace the one his father had trained, which also died in the accident.

Kindan knows some of the lore of watch-whers, enough to be aware that he cannot follow both paths at once. But at the same time he is aware of a painful secret being hidden by one of the leaders of the camp, a person who is regarded as an embarrassment to the family, to be kept out of sight. His curiosity refuses to allow him to just leave the matter alone, and he soon becomes friends with Nuella.

When Kindan finally does obtain a watch-wher egg, and has to tend it until it hatches, we learn some watch-wher lore that is quite a bit at variance from the picture we got in Dragonflight. In the original book, the watch-wher was chained like a watchdog, its wings brutally clipped (and remember, unlike birds, for whom wing-clipping is more akin to getting a haircut, watch-whers have batlike wings, so such a clipping would be a series of amputations of the terminal digits of the wings and the associated flightskin), and was generally treated as a dumb beast. There was no evidence that anybody was bonded to it in the manner that Pernese humans bond with dragons and firelizards, and it lived in almost unbelievable squallor which would indicate that it was given only the barest minimum care necessary.

But in Dragon's Kin, the watch-wher bonds with Kindan upon its hatching, informing him that its name is Kisk. And like dragons and fire-lizards, the young watch-wher requires extensive tending to remain healthy and grow into a sound adulthood. So we have a new variation on the familiar Impression sequence that we've seen in just about every book, all the way back to the beginning. Of course it makes sense -- the bond between human and dragon/firelizard/watch-wher is at the heart of the entire Pern series, so it has to be played up on -- yet there are only so many variations of it you can do, so pretty soon they start feeling repetitive, even "here we go again, insert standard Impression scene." These just don't have the emotional impact that the ones in the earlier books did, where you were right there all swept up in the peak experience that was a Hatching.

And then, as Kindan gets settled into his new role, there's another sinister discovery -- the accident that killed his father wasn't an accident at all, and the saboteur has struck again. This time he intends to destroy the entire mine and as many people as he can kill with it.

Several other reviewers have complained about the technical aspects of the scheme by which the mine is supposed to be destroyed being implausible. I'm not nearly familiar enough with the science and technology of mine ventilation to pass judgment upon the processes of mine ventilation, and at the time it seemed to make sense that increasing the amount of oxygen in the mine could make aerosolized coal dust a greater hazard. But I do know one thing that sticks with me -- the villain's motivation seems shaky at best, and certainly could have been developed a lot better.

But then Anne McCaffrey never has been that strong in the field of human villains. She always has been much better at stories of struggles against dangerous natural phenomena, or against incomprehensible aliens who might as well be natural phenomena. Her most believable villains have been the ones who have been motivated primarily by selfish desire for material gain, such as T'ron in the original series. When she's tried to write about villains with grandiose schemes, they've always seemed to be just a little over the top, and typically they've succeeded best in the stories that don't take themselves very seriously.

Review posted December 20, 2009.

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