the Little Red Reviewer

mediocre books get mediocerely written reviews

Posted on: April 6, 2011

Dragonquest by Anne McCaffrey

published in 1971

where I got it: husband came with it

why I read it: this is one of my husband’s favorite series, so I wanted to give it a try.

Picking up seven years after Dragonflight (reviewed here), Lessa has come into her own as Weyrwoman, F’lar is a respected Weyrleader, and the “oldtimers” that Lessa brought from four hundred turns ago are having trouble adapting to their new world.  The oldtimers who were once revered above all Pernians are having trouble swallowing that they are no longer seen as demigods by the populace.

The politics between the oldtimers and the contemporary Pernians are my favorite part of this book.  I interpreted it as an interesting little political commentary, how the oldtimers (conservatives) react to the contemporary dragonriders (the progessives). The way the oldtimers see it, everything the progessives do is wrong and to the detriment of society. But the contemporary dragonriders don’t see why they shouldn’t use every tool and every new technology they discover to make life easier for everyone?  When developing new methods and drastically moving away from tradition, how far is too far?

Since we already know the characters and the world, McCaffrey is able to develop other characters besides the heroic Lessa and F’lar.  F’lar’s halfbrother F’nor gets a lot more screen (page?) time,  which is much appreciated, as his sense of humor and lighter personality is a nice change from F’lar’s serious manner. And since Lessa’s Dragon Ramoth has had so many queen eggs, there are a lot more weyrwomen as well, most importantly Kylara who continues to be a  vicious and dangerous woman, and Brekke who starts out under Kylara’s thumb but quickly proves her worth and importance.

When two children get lost in caves and find old rooms that have been untouched for centuries, the craftmasters are beside themselves with the joys of rediscovering old technologies, including telescopes and microscopes. It’s not long after that a craftmaster develops a telegraph to send messages.  Pern, once pastoral and feudal, is developing technologies faster than it’s people can adapt to them.  It doesn’t help when the new Southern Weyr starts discovering clutches of fire-lizards that can be Impressed by just about anyone.

Suddenly, F’lar not only has to worry about unscheduled Thread falls, now he has to worry about the oldtimers who resent his methods and a general populace whose long-time resentment of the uppity dragonriders is now boiling to the surface.  Perhaps these little fire-lizards who can be Impressed by anyone will make fine enough pets to appease the feudal lords enough that they keep paying their tithes to the Dragonweyrs.

Pern may be a generally low tech civilization, but they have telepathic dragons who can teleport AND travel through time.  Who needs computers or cell phones with you’ve got time travelling dragons? McCaffrey has some fun with how the Pernians misinterpret old information and newly discovered technologies.  This really is a lovely fusing of fantasy and science fiction.

it’s really too bad McCaffrey’s writing style did absolutely nothing for me.  the dialog is fine, if stilted, but sadly, I struggled to finish Dragonquest and found myself skimming towards the end.  I might have no attention span, or maybe I’ve just been really spoiled lately with prose that doesn’t waste a word, that gives valueable information in each and every sentence.  This didn’t read like that kind of prose.  Dragonflight read like a debut, and I was forgiving of the clunky writing and the one dimensional characters.  With Dragonquest, my expectations were higher, and although I did get characters that were far more fleshed out, I also got too large on an ensemble cast for me to keep track of,  a society dealing with social upheaval and new technologies, romance, melodrama,  power vacuums, and just plain too many people telling their viewpoints of the story.  Every other page felt like “meanwhile, back at the Ranch. . . “.  It’s a personal preference of mine to have focused stories with smaller casts.  Had McCaffrey pulled back on even just one thing out of many, I think I would have enjoyed reading the book more.

On the other hand, the scifi concepts and the politics of the story were excellent.  This is a feudal style civilization, with Hold (village) Lords and tithes and low technology, but at the same time, we are far in humanity’s future, with this fledgling planet having simply lost so much knowledge through mass die off and or bad communication.  It’s staggering to think about how the Pernians got where they did.  Unless we find a perfect way to pass information to future generations, flying dragons aside, is this the kind of future we can look forward to, even here on Earth?  It really is fascinating to think about.

The end of Dragonquest leaves many questions unanswered along with a deftly designed cliffhanger, but I was so put off by McCaffrey’s writing style that I’m not sure if I will continue reading this series.

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10 Responses to "mediocre books get mediocerely written reviews"

My wife adores this series and devours everything McCaffrey writes. I’m not sure what it is, but I’ve never been able to get the attraction of the Pern stuff.

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I have the series on my list but haven’t gotten around to them. The world sounds interesting but I sometimes experience fatigue with a series like this so it may turn out to be a one and done for me instead of the whole collection.

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The Pern books are quite variable. Some are interesting, some are not.

I recently re-read and reviewed two of my favourites – Dragonsong and Dragonsinger. The latter is a sequel to the former, but can probably be read without it. They’re both are more YA approach to Pern, and they focus (particularly the second) on music and the Harper’s Hall, which makes them oddly low-key for fantasy – and if you don’t like large casts, these both have casts of more-or-less one.

The other volume I found fascinating is Dragondawn – and as its a prequel set thousands of years ago, you won’t be spoiled too much by reading it out of order. It’s basically the story of how a high-tech human interstellar civilisation, devastated by a recent war against aliens, came to settle on Pern. It’s a lot more to the sci-fi side than the fantasy, and I found it an excellent story of colonialism, as well as neatly tying in with a lot of things we discover in the ‘present day’ Pern books. That said, I haven’t re-read it in a while, so who knows how good it really is.

I liked Pern for a while, but if you don’t like it there’s not much point reading on – except trying different angles, like the two I’ve just suggested. Some of the books and characters do feel… somewhat repetitive by the end.

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we own a handful of Anne McCaffrey, so I’m sure eventually I’ll try another one, most likely the Harper Hall books, as they keep coming highly recommended, and have a smaller cast.

A friend on twitter also mentioned that McCaffrey is much easier to get into (or get back into) if you grew up reading her stuff.

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I suspect so, as with most fantasy. It gains a place in your heart, and becomes so engrained you don’t question all the flaws so much.

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Yeah, my wife and a couple of our friends are huge into everything Pern, and I just don’t get it. I actually read the Dragonriders trilogy and the Harper Hall trilogy in college at my wife’s behest, and didn’t really think much of them. I definitely see them as a “something I grew up with” deal; much like I probably wouldn’t give a moment’s thought to Star Wars novels if I hadn’t grown up reading them.

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McCaffrey isn’t a great writer in the technical sense of crafting prose, though I have enjoyed her books for the plots and the characters (though I have always found Lessa rather annoying). I started the Pern books when I was a teenager, though I haven’t read any for ages, so don’t know what I’d think of them now.

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Back at Baycon, the 68 Worldcon in Oakland, I happened to be in the bar. It was my first Worldcon and I had quickly learned that all the writers hung out there, and I had come to the convention (my second) to meet some of my idols. There was a youngish woman sitting at the bar crying, and being a nice guy I asked her what was wrong. It turned out to be Anne McCaffery, and she was crying because it was her first convention and no-one knew who she was. I was able to tell her (truthfully) that I had read and liked her first dragon story, which had just been published in Analog, which cheered her up.

My bit for posterity . . .

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great, now I feel even crappier for dissing the book . . . .
;)

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I am so glad to see this discussion! I loved and adored these books as a kid, but recently decided to go back to one and found it unreadably badly written. Like the Anne Rice books. And (shhh…) Harry Potter. I hope those writers can laugh all the way to the bank, though, and don’t mind my criticism, because anyone so loved is clearly doing something right.

Here’s my post on Dragonflight.

http://ananthologyofclouds.com/2012/08/03/24-dragonflight-anne-mccaffrey/

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