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Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern by Anne McCaffrey

Cover art by Michael Whelan

Published by Del Rey Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

At the end of the sixth Pern book, The White Dragon, Anne McCaffrey had the protagonists discover the long-buried shuttlecraft that had originally brought their distant ancestors to Pern. In addition, she retired Masterharper Robinton, who had started as a minor character in Dragonflight, existing entirely to reveal the all-important Question Song which had been retired from the roster of Teaching Songs because its plaintive tone was disturbing, but who soon became a major character in his own right, particularly in the Harper Hall trilogy of young adult novels. The combination of these two major story elements at the end makes a good argument that the author was writing finis upon her creation.

However, the original six Pern books proved to be so massively and enduringly popular that Pern could not be laid to rest. Fans clamored for new stories of the world they loved and the bond between human and dragon. The publishers were not going to want to leave such an obvious and remunerative market untapped, so they began to strongly nudge the author to produce further Pern books. After all, she had bills to pay, and if the publishers were more interested in a new Pern book than stories in new universes, it behooved her future solvency to respond to the wishes of the market.

Except how could she continue the series after having retired Masterharper Robinton and revealed the science-fictional underpinnings of her imagined world, thus forever disrupting its quasi-feudal, pre-technological society? Like other authors before her who had tried to put an end to their imagined worlds or characters only to discover that their fans and publishers would not accept the idea that there would be no more stories about that world or character, she looked into the past of her imagined world for untold stories. Moreta has been mentioned in Dragonflight as one of the great Weyrwomen (with Lessa using her ballad as proof that queen dragons do indeed fly), and her story was more fully developed through the scene in Dragonsinger in which Menolly leads the singing of the Ballad of Moreta's Ride. Now Ms. McCaffrey took to actually chronicle those events.

Pern of the Sixth Pass is quite a bit different from what it will become at the beginning of the Ninth Pass. Less knowledge has been lost, and women are freely accepted as equals in the crafthalls. People of all but the lowest levels of society travel freely between the Holds and Weyrs as they have business that takes them to and fro. There is even some talk about exploring the Southern Continent once the Pass is over. However, that very openness may well be laying Pern open to deadly danger.

When an unauthorized expedition to the Southern Continent brings back a vicious feline, nobody worries. Far from it, many travel to see this curiosity at two Gathers. Only when people suddenly fall ill with a mysterious malady does anyone begin to worry. By that time the cat is at Ruatha, where newly confirmed Lord Holder Felessan is holding his first Gather. Left a widower when his lovely young lady wife was thrown from her runnerbeast and mortally wounded, he is taking comfort from the attentions of Moreta, weyrwoman of Fort Hold (a marked discrepancy from the tradition of the Ninth Pass, which placed her in Benden Weyr, and gave her origins as Ruatha Hold, not one of the small cotholds of the Keroon plains as it is stated in this novel -- one can only wonder whether Anne McCaffrey simply forgot what she had originally established about Moreta when she set forth to write this novel, or if she deliberately departed from the established canon in a way of showing just how much knowledge had been lost during the intervening time, as the dislocations which resulted from the Sixth Pass plague led to concentration on the transmission of the most vital pieces of information at the expense of things such as history).

But even quarantining Ruatha and the other holds at which the cat was displayed is not enough to stem the spread of this dangerous disease, for it is not true Plague, which is an animal-vectored disease caused by the bacteria Yersina pestis. Instead it is a respiratory disease similar to the influenza family (including the H1N1 swine flu and the H5N1 avian flu that are of grave concern to epedemiologists here in the Primary World), and is communicable, transmitted by casual contact between humans. As a result, the plague spreads swiftly, not only among holder and crafter, but among the dragonriders upon whom all Pern depends for defense against the deadly Thread raining down upon them. Dragonriders who have flitted between Hall and Hold providing casual transportation and communications wherever they were needed.

Anne McCaffrey portrays quite realistically the wagon-circling response that results from this kind of helpless fear, particularly in the response of the High Reaches Weyrleader, who shuts off all contact with other Weyrs and refuses to participate in the distributions of much-needed immunity-bearing plasma, which results in the remaining Weyrs' riders pushing themselves far too hard. Thus everything builds toward the final disaster, as Moreta heroically pushes herself and borrowed dragon Holth (her own Orlith being on the Fort Weyr Hatching Grounds guarding her clutch of hardening eggs) beyond the limits of endurance to visit one more of the tiny, isolated cotholds of Keroon that she alone knows well enough to recognize.

The Ballad of Moreta's Ride as described in Dragonsinger gave the impression that Moreta's death would be a long, drawn-out process of excruciating agony, that she herself had contracted the disease and was dying from it as she was delivering the medicine that would cure others of it. As a result, when the end comes, its sheer suddenness comes as a shock -- particularly since it's the result not of illness but of an error so basic that Weyrlings are drilled again and again as part of their first flight training to prevent it -- an error that happens only because Moreta is so completely exhausted as the result of having to do more than her fair share of the duty (as a result of High Reaches' refusal to participate) that she is no longer thinking clearly and is in fact practically asleep in the saddle.

And there is a certain fittingness to doing it that way. Because anyone who has read the earlier books knows the general shape of the story and its inevitable end from the description of the Ballad in Dragonsinger, a long and agonizing death would tread dangerously on the line between pathos and bathos, between the sublime and the tedious. Instead, when the end comes, it does so as a shock -- only the very alert reader will note Moreta's error when she makes it, leaving the rest to be caught quite by surprise when she doesn't arrive in Fort Weyr and instead Orlith shrieks in grief at the loss of her rider, wanting desperately to join her between but unable to do so because of the eggs still hardening upon the sands of the Hatching Grounds. In fact, anything more would have run the risk of descending into the sort of thing we see in Dragon Harper, which at times goes beyond bathos to absurdity and becomes ridiculous instead of heartrending.

In many ways Moreta is one of the best of the Pern books. The author has found her voice, so there are no longer the awkward fumbles of the earlier ones, but she hasn't reached the point of simply regurgitating the same old storylines with new names in different passes. In fact, I far prefer rereading it than reading most of the new Pern books the first time through.

Review posted May 20, 2010.

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