Fantastic Reviews - Science Fiction Book Review
Dragonsblood cover Dragonsblood by Todd McCaffrey

Del Rey hardcover - copyright 2005
436 pages
Cover art by Les Edwards

Book reviewed February 2005

Rating: 5/10  (Mildly Recommended)

Review by Aaron Hughes

          Apparently, dragons are hereditary.  Todd McCaffrey collaborated with his mother Anne McCaffrey, recently named "Grand Master" by the Science Fiction Writers of America, on Dragon's Kin (2003), the 18th book in Anne's dragon-filled Pern universe; now he offers us Dragonsblood, a stand-alone Pern adventure.  This is the first solo novel by Todd McCaffrey, who has been working as a computer engineer, although he has published one non-fiction book - Dragonholder (1999), a biography of his mother - as well as some short fiction under the name Todd Johnson.  (Since McCaffrey is Anne's maiden name, presumably Johnson is Todd's birth name and he is now using "McCaffrey" to emphasize the filial relationship, although I remain skeptical that Anne McCaffrey would really name her son Todd and not Gnelrith or some such.)

So Todd McCaffrey is adding to his mother's most famous fictional universe, just as Brian Herbert has recently done with his father Frank's Dune universe.  (With the distinction that Anne McCaffrey plans to continue writing her own books in the series, unlike the late Frank Herbert.)  This gives Todd the benefit of the built-in market his mother created, but may also cause some skepticism about his writing.  After all, if he is a talented writer, wouldn't his time be better spent on original work?  But Todd McCaffrey insists that he fell in love with Pern as a boy when his mother was first creating it, and he just couldn't resist the temptation to add to the planet's story, so we'll give him the benefit of the doubt.

Given that Todd McCaffrey has decided - with Mom's approval, of course - to write Pern books, the first thing Anne McCaffrey's many fans will want to know is whether he is up to the challenge.  The short answer: Yes.  Dragonsblood follows the conventions of the Pern universe so faithfully and adheres to Anne McCaffrey's style so seamlessly that, had I not known, I never would have guessed that Anne McCaffrey did not write it herself.

Dragonsblood is fully centered on the dragons and dragonriders of Pern, unlike Todd and Anne's collaboration Dragon's Kin, which was mainly concerned with miners and watch-whers, smaller cousins of dragons.  For any of you unfamiliar with Pern, the essential background is that humans colonized Pern centuries ago, unaware that whenever an eccentrically orbiting planet called the "Red Star" approaches Pern, deadly "Thread" falls from the sky, destroying all life in its path.  To defend themselves, the early colonists took native winged fire-lizards and genetically engineered them into huge dragons.  These dragons can teleport through time and space and destroy Thread before it lands by breathing fire on it.

Dragonsblood alternates between two periods in the history of Pern, near the end of the first Threadfall 50 years after the human colonists arrived, and the very beginning of the third pass of the Red Star some 450 years later (only a few years after the events of Dragon's Kin).  The chapters in the early period follow Wind Blossom, daughter of Kitti Ping, the creator of Pern's dragons (first seen in Dragonsdawn), and a skilled geneticist in her own right.  A very sick fire-lizard appears out of the future and, after Wind Blossom nurses it back to health with the last of her supply of antibiotics, she begins to worry about the vulnerability of dragons and fire-lizards to disease.  She determines to find a way to help future generations who may encounter such disease.  (Wind Blossom being prompted by the fire-lizard from the future is a blatant violation of the supposed rule in the Pern universe that time travel cannot alter the past, but since Anne McCaffrey also regularly violates that rule in her Pern books, we won't hold it against Todd.)

The chapters in the later period follow Lorana (not to be confused with Loreana from Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern), who unwittingly sent the fire-lizard back in time to Wind Blossom.  Lorana is a talented young woman who, after escaping the ruffians on the ship that appears on the book's cover, arrives at Benden Weyr and discovers that she has the rare ability to communicate telepathically with all dragons.  Soon after, she Impresses a newborn dragon named Arith, in a very amusing scene that shows that even after 18 Pern books one can still come up with creative new ways to bring dragon and rider together.  Lorana's joy at becoming a dragonrider may prove short-lived, however, because just as the Red Star approaches and Thread is due to begin falling, a great many of the dragons fall ill.  (Disasters on Pern have the uncanny knack of always occurring just before Threadfall begins.)  The disease disorients the dragons, so that when they teleport between they often cannot find their way back, and proves fatal within a few weeks to every affected dragon.  What's worse, the disease renders all of Pern's weyrs wing light and disorganized, so they are each decimated as many dragons and riders are fatally scored by Thread in their first few battles.

With her ability to talk to all the dragons and her skills as an animal healer learned from her father, Lorana is the key to hopes of finding a cure to the dragons' disease.  She will receive plenty of help from harper Kindan, a central character from Dragon's Kin, and no help at all from Tullea, her incredibly bitchy weyrwoman.  Lorana's best hope lies in somehow finding a means of communicating with Pern's more technically advanced past.

Todd McCaffrey's first solo foray into the Pern universe is remarkably successful.  Not only is he faithful to Anne McCaffrey's creation, but he fleshes out aspects of the Pern universe with surprising panache.  For instance, he gives us many interesting specifics about the dragons' creation and their genetic code, to the point that Dragonsblood has more the feel of science fiction than fantasy, unlike some of his mother's Pern books.

Dragonsblood shares many of the strengths of the Anne McCaffrey Pern books, including its strong female lead characters and the sense it conveys of the thrill of flying dragonback.  Todd McCaffrey also tells a good story, if you can forgive a few too many flashbacks to characters and events in the earlier time period that have little or nothing to do with the main story line.  By placing all of Pern's dragons in real jeopardy, he creates more dramatic tension than his mother managed in many of the previous Pern novels.

Dragonsblood is thus not merely an adequate Pern book, it is a particularly good one.  Devoted fans of the series should be delighted with it, and it will even make a good starting point for newcomers to the series.

Even though Dragonsblood is a relatively good Pern book, however, I can give it only a mild recommendation, for I confess I am able to muster little enthusiasm for the Pern series as a whole.  Notwithstanding the McCaffreys' strengths, to me the Pern books conform disconcertingly well to most non-genre readers' misperception of what the science fiction and fantasy field is all about.  The prose is awkward and the characterization superficial, there is little insight into real human issues, and instead the primary appeal lies in the special effects, namely the big ol' fire-breathing dragons.

          To make matters worse, the series has far exceeded its recommended shelf life.  In its early appearances, most notably the 1967 Hugo Award-winning novella "Weyr Search" (later incorporated into Dragonflight), Pern made fresh contributions to dragon lore, such as McCaffrey's concept of how dragons and their riders "Impress" upon each other to form an indelible telepathic bond (a concept recently put to good use in Christopher Paolini's runaway best-seller Eragon).  But by now, the Pern universe has been filled in so thoroughly that each new volume follows the same readily familiar patterns, just like the one hundredth media tie-in novel set in the Star Trek universe.  Of course, sometimes it can be pleasant and comforting to return to a familiar setting, and it is hard to fault Anne McCaffrey for responding to her devoted fans' pleas for more books in the Pern series.  Still, this pattern of repetition is the antithesis of what the best science fiction and fantasy do, confronting readers with the new and the strange and forcing them to view the world in different ways.
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Copyright 2005 Aaron Hughes

More McCaffrey Pern book reviews on Fantastic Reviews:
Dragonquest by Anne McCaffrey

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

Links to websites about the Todd McCaffrey, Anne McCaffrey and Pern:
Todd McCaffrey Home Page
Todd McCaffrey - Wikipedia
Worlds of Anne McCaffrey
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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