Fantastic Reviews - Classic Science Fiction Book Review
Dragonquest 1971 book cover Dragonquest by Anne McCaffrey

Being the Further Adventures of the Dragonriders of Pern
Ballantine Books - copyright 1971
333 pages
cover art by Gino D'Achille

Book read in September 2002
Rating: 5/10  (Mildly Recommended)

Review by Aaron Hughes

       The Pern series has been Anne McCaffrey's greatest commercial success by far.  I didn't get much out of Dragonflight, the first Pern novel, so I never went further in the sequence.  Knowing that McCaffrey has so many devoted fans, however, I always figured I should give Pern a second chance some time.  What prompted me to finally do so now is that I've recently started listening to books on tape while commuting, and McCaffrey is one of the few science fiction and fantasy authors whose work is widely available on tape.

       Listening to Dragonquest on audiotape was a dreadful mistake.  Like all of the Pern books, it is loaded with passages like:

When T'ron's reply finally arrived, it set the meeting for the first watch, Fort Weyr time; or high night, Benden time, a most inconsiderate hour for F'lar and certainly inconvenient for the other easterly Weyrs, Igen, Ista and even Telgar.  D'ram of Ista Weyr and R'mart of Telgar, and probably G'narish of Igen would have something sharp to say to T'ron about such timing, though their lag was not as great as Benden Weyr's.

When reading from a page, the eye can pass over lines like this.  But they sound just plain silly when spoken aloud.

       For those who don't already know, Pern is a world populated by humans in a fairly primitive feudal society.  Their world is forever menaced by the Red Star, another planet in their solar system.  When the Red Star approaches Pern, deadly "threads" fall from the sky, searing all living things that they touch.  To protect themselves, the people of Pern have managed to breed huge fire-breathing dragons, which can soar into the air and destroy thread before it reaches the ground.  Each dragon forms a telepathic bond, or "impression", with a single human.  Dragons have the remarkable ability to teleport instantly from place to place, and even through time.

       * DRAGONFLIGHT SPOILER WARNING *  This review will not reveal any of the surprises of Dragonquest, however I am about to give away the ending of the preceding book, Dragonflight.  If you haven't read Dragonflight and don't wish to know what happens, please skip over the next two paragraphs.

       At the end of Dragonflight, Lessa saves the day by going back in time to get reinforcements from an earlier age.  I found this use of time travel, at a Calvin & Hobbes level of sophistication, unsatisfying in Dragonflight.  Now in Dragonquest, the second volume of the Pern series, McCaffrey addresses some interesting complications arising out of Lessa's solution to the crisis in the first book.

       In particular, Dragonquest is much heavier on political intrigue than Dragonflight, with emphasis on the divisions between the "modern" dragonriders and the "old-timers."  The old-timers are jealous of the power and prestige they used to enjoy in their own era.  Although McCaffrey goes about framing the issues awkwardly at first, these political divisions are more interesting than any of the conflicts in the first Pern book.  The tension between the modern riders and the old-timers is quite believable.  The old-timers, brought forward in time hundreds of years, would naturally feel a deep sense of future shock.  Since they came forward to save this future (to them) world, their arrogance in expecting the world to adjust to them is understandable.  What's more, the difficulties in dealing with the old-timers exacerbate other natural points of conflict between the holdfasts, the craftsmen, and the dragonriders, in a world beginning to change quickly after many years of stagnation.


       In addition to Pernese politics, McCaffrey adds a number of other elements to the story.  Among these are the realization that the schedules by which the dragonriders anticipate when thread will fall are no longer reliable; a series of encounters with fire lizards, small cousins of dragons who can also be impressed; the discovery that life in the southern continent seems strangely resistant to the effects of thread; the invention of a primitive telegraph; and the introduction of the telescope, which allows the dragonriders to study the Red Star and to consider going there to eliminate thread at its source (notwithstanding their innate dread of the Red Star - as McCaffrey indelicately puts it, the sight of the Red Star gives one of the dragonriders the feeling of "an extra-cold spine from his balls to his throat").

       To me, however, the political issues were the only aspects of the novel that successfully held my interest.  Certainly McCaffrey's characterization doesn't do the trick.  Not because McCaffrey isn't capable of characterization, mind you, but rather because she so busies herself jumping between conferences among countless apostrophe-laden names that she rarely lingers on any particular characters long enough to flesh them out.  Lessa and F'lar, the couple who lead Benden Weyr, are remarkably bland heroes.  Some of the side characters, particularly F'nor, Brekke, and the villainous Kylara, are more interesting, but aren't onstage long enough to take over the story.

       Even worse, for me it is impossible for McCaffrey to maintain dramatic tension with the dragonriders' ongoing battle against the threads.  She has painted herself into a corner by granting dragons the ability to travel through time.  In this book, everyone is alarmed that threads are falling out of schedule, and so a threadfall could occur without warning, causing devastation before the dragonriders could arrive.  But if that happened, so what?  The dragonriders can just go back in time a few hours, and thus be there to prevent any damage.  Don't believe me?  In Chapter Ten of this book, McCaffrey actually shows one of the dragonriders going back in time to observe the beginning of a threadfall.  (She doesn't do it for any purpose central to the plot, so I didn't just break my anti-spoilers pledge.)

       Indeed, McCaffrey never explains why the dragonriders don't use their ability to travel through time to fix matters whenever anything goes seriously wrong.  For all the tremendous level of detail McCaffrey puts into Pern, in the end it doesn't strike me as a carefully thought out universe.
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Copyright 2002 Aaron Hughes

book club omnibus edition (right)
contains books Dragonflight, Dragonquest, and The White Dragon
Dragonriders of Pern BCE cover

More McCaffrey Pern book reviews on Fantastic Reviews:
Dragonsblood by Todd McCaffrey

Back to Fantastic Reviews main page

Our book club's web pages for other Anne McCaffrey books (includes McCaffrey bibliography):
Dragonsong / Dragonsinger

Links to websites about Anne McCaffrey and Pern:
Worlds of Anne McCaffrey
Anne McCaffrey - Wikipedia
Sariel's Guide to Pern
The Many Worlds of Anne McCaffrey

For information on more science fiction and fantasy books:
Denver Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Club

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