Nerilka's Story by Anne McCaffrey
Published by Del Rey Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
Nerilka's Story is unusual for a Pern book in being the only one told in the first person. It is written as though an account for the Records written by Nerilka herself, and as such it is one of the most intimate of the Pern books, bringing us right into the story instead of holding us at arms' length.
Nerilka was originally a minor character in Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern. One of the many children of Lord Tolocamp of Fort Hold, she was so disgusted with her father's miserliness in the face of a worldwide plague that she left the Hold to do good works among those her father would abandon to their fates. In doing so she began a journey which would lead to a far finer end than she'd dare hope for herself.
This is not a story to begin one's acquaintance with the Pern series, although the author's introduction does help clear some items that are simply presupposed in the narration. However, anyone who has already read and enjoyed Moreta will enjoy seeing a different perspective on the events.
For instance, Nerilka starts her story by remembering how she had been less than happy to learn that she would not be accompanying her sisters to Ruatha Hold for the big Gather Alessan was holding there. It is a particularly galling exclusion because Nerilka had been fostered with Alessan's late wife, and had continued their correspondence until her death. As a result, she had been looking forward to seeing Ruatha, which Suriana had described in many letters -- but her lady mother considers it inappropriate so soon after Suriana's sudden death in an accident, thrown from a runnerbeast, and that Nerilka's presence would only remind Alessan of his own loss.
However, Nerilka suspects that there is a more practical reason -- she is not exceptionally pretty, and in a prosperous Pern with many sons in every major Lord Holder's family, the prospects for marriage appropriate to her rank and station in life are slender. Particularly given that her father has produced a very large brood, only a few of her sisters have any real hope of a match -- yet the thought of spending the rest of her life declining into old-maid auntiehood under the thumb of first her father and then whichever of her brothers succeeds him does not set well with her. But particularly during a Pass, when the Red Star approaches Pern and sheds deadly Thread for fifty Turns, a Lord Holder has absolute authority over the people beholden to him. Attempting to balk is likely to result only in being singled out for all the most unpleasant chores and denied privileges. (The marital situation is quite realistic for young women of aristocratic blood in a feudal society, including the expectation of chastity for even the ones who will never make a dynastic marriage, while their brothers are allowed and even expected to have casual dalliances).
Even when the plague first breaks out, Nerilka does not really appreciate the significance of the events -- to her it is primarily an annoyance that her brother's regency will be extended as a result of the quarantine keeping her father at Ruatha. But when Lord Tolocamp breaks quarantine to sneak back into Fort Hold, arguing that his Hold needs him in the time of crisis and that he will not endanger them if he immures himself in his quarters until the danger is past, Nerilka can see past his rationalizations and knows he is a coward. Why else would he have abandoned his lady wife and four of his daughters to their fates?
But Nerilka cannot yet bring herself to defy her father, disgusted as she is with him. Even when news comes of Lady Pendra's death and Lord Tolocamp wastes no time in bringing his mistress Anella and her brood into the Hold, Nerilka forbears to seethe in silence. She had been aware that her father had a mistress, but he had always kept Anella discreetly housed in an outlying cothold. Anella has no such common sense, and as soon as she is installed in the Lord Holder's apartments, she begins to set herself up as the new Lady Holder and succeeds in systematically alienating not only Lady Pendra's surviving children, but also the Hold staff. Still, Nerilka feels herself obligated to her father's authority and endures Anella with the best grace she can manage.
It is only when Lord Tolocamp finally crosses the line by refusing aid that is his feudal obligation that Nerilka regards her own obligation to him to be broken and leaves to take aid as best she can to Ruatha. In doing so she becomes a part of the heroic effort to create and distribute a lifesaving serum to end the plague.
This story is fascinating for its look into the gender politics of a Hold, in particularly as they relate to succession and to the differing expectations of the conduct of men and women of high rank. Unlike some of the later Pern novels, which seem to imply that everyone, men and women alike of all social classes, are free to have casual dalliances according to their romantic inclinations, this novel still shows the aristocrats at least as having the sort of gender/class double standard that is typical of societies with patrilineal inheritance (generally societies in which women of quality are free to pursue dalliances have a matrilineal system of descent, with inheritance passing to the sons of a man's sisters rather than to those of his own wife). There are a few bobbles where modernisms creep in, for instance when Nerilka refers to shoring up another character's self-esteem, but on the whole the mindset of a pre-Industrial culture is captured.
In addition, there is a brief epilog which carries the story of Moreta's era into the next generation, giving at least a suggestion of the lives of Nerilka's children.
Review posted April 15, 2009
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