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The White Dragon by Anne McCaffrey

Published by Del Rey Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

In Dragonquest, Lord Jaxom of Ruatha accidentally Impressed the runt white dragon Ruth, causing a political crisis right when F'lar was already at the end of his tether dealing with the Oldtimers and the dissident Lords Holder. Many wanted Jaxom to enter the Weyr, which would leave Ruatha to be contested by all the younger sons of Pern's Lords Holder. However, because Ruth was a runt and not expected to survive, F'lar was able to argue that Jaxom should remain where he was.

Ruth has exceeded all expectations and not only survived, but actually thrived. Jaxom is now on the threshold of manhood, and wishes to realize his dual role in full. However, things will not be so easy. Because Jaxom is Lord Holder of a politically important Hold, his life is not his own to risk. Thus he has had to fight hard just to get to ride Ruth in flight, and the Lords Holder adamantly resist any notion of him actually flying combat against Thread. At the same time, he must prove his maturity in order to end the regency and assume control of his own Hold.

The novel opens quite appropriately with Jaxom's first flight with Ruth, which gives the adults in the scene plenty of opportunity to remind him of his responsibilities, and thus clue the reader in to exactly what is at stake should anything go wrong. The authorities are taking no chances -- while most weyrlings are allowed to begin riding their dragons when they reach a minimally acceptable size, Jaxom has perforce waited until they are certain Ruth has reached his full growth and there is no possibility his strength will prove inadequate.

In some ways this seems a questionable practice, for the simple reason that Ruth would have no opportunity to develop his flight muscles at the developmentally appropriate time, and that it could easily result in the very weakness that they're trying so hard to prevent. However, the aerodynamics of dragon flight is rubber science anyway, and later books in the Pern series have revealed that it is actually a form of telekenesis with the wings used primarily for steering rather than lift, so it's really more of a plot device to emphasize just how long Jaxom's had to wait and how desperately he longs to actually be able to function as a dragonrider.

However, the Bildungsroman elements of the early chapters soon shade into political intrigue, as Jaxom discovers that all is not well in the Southern Continent. At the climax of Dragonquest, F'lar exiled to Southern Weyr all the Oldtimers who would not accept the leadership of Benden Weyr, thus resolving the crisis of leadership that was tearing Pern's fragile feudal society apart. But while the Oldtimers may have acquiesced to their exile out of necessity, they have not truly accepted it. Far from it, they have been actively conspiring to get around the restrictions in every way they can, and to undermine the authority of Benden Weyr's leadership.

But things are not going well for them. For the most part, the exiled Oldtimers were mostly older men already, and the few queen riders who accompanied them are old enough that their queen dragons are no longer rising to mate. As a result, these deposed leaders are beginning to see their exile as something far more sinister -- a plot to remove them from the scene by letting them die out without anyone to carry on their polity. Desperate, two of the senior Oldtimers decide to horn in on an open mating flight by a virgin queen, hoping thus to usurp the leadership of that Weyr.

However, things turn out badly, for the elderly dragons are no longer able to compete with a strong young queen. And men who have lost their dragons often go mad, not exactly a good situation in the crowded chambers in which the riders of the competing dragons wait to bed the rider of the queen dragon. Only by a desperate maneuver by which Jaxom and Ruth travel backwards in time are they able to bring help.

And then, just as things are about to completely unravel, Jaxom takes ill. He thinks it's just a head cold, so he orders Ruth to take him to a beautiful hidden cove in the Southern Continent where he thinks he can just bake the infection out of his lungs. But in fact it is firehead, a far more serious disease that can have life-threatening complications, particularly for dragonriders. Which means that Jaxom must survive lest his death or incapacitation result in political chaos, for Ruatha Hold has no heir.

The White Dragon was the last of the six original Pern books, written after the Harper Hall trilogy as well as the original two Dragonrider books. As a result, Anne McCaffrey was able to incorporate characters and narrative elements from those side stories, particularly Menolly and Sebell, as well as being able to take advantage of the development of Pernese culture which she had done in those stories, which took a more intimate view on life in a Hold and in the Harper Hall. As a result, The White Dragon feels richer and deeper than previous Pern books.

In addition, the passage of some twenty years and the resultant changes in attitudes since she originally wrote Dragonflight means that we see less of the disturbing attitudes toward women that were present in the first two books, but without the excessive PC prettification that has been appearing in some of the more recent volumes in the series. One of the most unsettling is Jaxom's rather casual dalliance with a young woman of Ruatha Hold, which is treated as a sort of "training exercise" for his future marriage to a woman who will be of suitable lineage to be his Lady Holder. However, as a historian I have to note that such behavior was not only acceptable but expected of young men of gentle birth in our own world -- in 1632 Eric Flint has an excellent scene in which a young nobleman speaks bitterly about how his father regarded it as good training in the amorous arts to casually mount prostitutes, but became angry when his affections actually became attached to one and he began to regard her as a human being rather than something to be used and discarded.

I was also somewhat unsettled by the shift in Lessa's characterization which turned her into a cranky harridan, because I had always liked her spunk and determination in Dragonflight, in which she had been an agent for change in the face of traditionalists who had tried to curb her curiosity and beat her down into an ineffectual Weyrwoman just like her predecessor. But this may well have been a result of the shift in focus away from her story, which put Jaxom as protagonist of this novel into a collision course with her. Still, I would've liked a more nuanced treatment of her character that dug more deeply into her motivations rather than setting her up as little more than a cardboard obstructionist with an irrational dislike for fire lizards.

Yet even with its faults, I find I still like The White Dragon much better than many of the later volumes. In fact, I often think that Anne McCaffrey originally planned to make it the final volume of the series, particularly with the retirement of Robinton and the rediscovery of the ancient shuttles, which to my mind seem to have been intended to give the reader a sense of closure on Pern. Unfortunately, the first six books were so successful that her publishers saw the world as a potential goldmine, and have had her keeping writing new Pern books long after she ran out of things to say in that world.

Review posted April 15, 2009

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