Book Review–Dragonriders Of Pern by Anne McCaffery

Title: Dragonriders Of Pern
Anne McCaffery
Published: 2006

I hesitate to review this omnibus edition of the first three volumes in the Pern series because that series is so beloved I feel a bit as though I’m reviewing people’s spouses, parents, childhood best friends.    I myself never read the books when I was younger; most people I’ve mentioned them to say that they first read them in sixth grade or eighth grade or “when they were just a kid.”   It seems like the Pern novels were a rite of passage which passed me by.

Coming to them fresh, 45 years after the first book–Dragonflight–was published, is an interesting experience indeed.   I’ve read lots of reviews which claim that story was pre-feminist, but I don’t really think that 1968 was pre-feminist at all.  That’s sort of why I’m surprised at the sheer amount of physical abuse that passes for story in the first half of that novel.     When I mentioned to a group of life-long Anne McCaffery fans that I found the partner violence very disturbing they looked momentarily confused and then said “well, he shakes her.  That’s not so bad.”

I have to admit that conversation really has coloured my opinion on these three novels.   A LOT of people read these and admire these stories and get caught up in them.  Are they all willing to dismiss a man repeatedly violently shaking a woman who is a third of his size?  Oh, it’s not so bad to react physically when a person upsets you or challenges you in any way!  Anne McCaffery says so!  She’s the Queen of Dragons.  (Seriously, that’s what the cover art of one of the novels claims.)   When all is said and done, though, I ended up making a strange sort of  detente with that aspect of the book.

I have trouble here, though, because my opinion of the rest of the books is much more vague, harder to draw down into a distilled “yes, these are good/ no, they aren’t good” label that one expects from a book review.   Yes, these books are good.   No they aren’t good.  It’s complicated.

In the Yes column–the anthropologic detail of Pern, it’s structure and culture are fascinating.   After the rocky first half of Dragonflight, which consists mostly of the hero and heroine fighting about everything they can think of, the stories take off and you invariably find yourself interested in whether or not these two will fall in love or that one will figure out the purpose of The Dawn Sisters constellation.    The dragons themselves are enchanting, none more so than the wonderfully endearing Ruth, whom you meet in the third volume, The White Dragon.  If you enjoy dragons and the idea of having dragons as lifelong bonded familiars, then you’ll surely be swept along.

In the No column–McCaffery seems to have written these books for people who like dragons.   They don’t have strong storylines per se.   Each book seems to have two conflicts that arise at random and are resolved rather quickly.   The rest of the books just follow a Pernese or two about his or her daily life for awhile and you get to learn more about the planet and how it works.   I think this is interesting if you’re into that sort of thing, but I did find myself reading pages upon pages of people just doing things without any real goal point in sight.    Even worse is her handling of the various villains, all of whom are over-the-top baddies with no redeeming qualities and no purpose other than to antagonise Our Beloved Heroes.   There is never any resolution provided to the reader either.   We see the villains do terrible things that are gravely upsetting, then later on the conflict the villains’ actions created is handled by the capable Good guys.   The story concludes with someone mentioning that “oh yeah.  The bad guy is rotting away insane in the dungeon now” or some other offhand dismissal.  It’s very unsatisfying and frankly  terrible writing.

The largest problem, though, happens to be the non-dragon good guys.   Two of the main focuses of the story–Lessa in Dragonflight and Jaxom in The White Dragon are some of the least likeable characters to ever grace a page.  The fact that they are the heroes of their respective books makes things difficult.    Lessa is constantly abrasive to those around her.   Jaxom is in a position of power that he exploits in order to have a sexual liaison with one of his employees, a young girl whom he abandons without a second thought or word of explanation when another, “better” woman comes along.   As many times as the book tells the reader that this is totally acceptable on Pern the fact of the matter is that it is NOT totally acceptable on Earth.  And Earth is where the readers are.

So where do we land on this as far as worms go?    I’m going to say “three”.  Then I’m going to hide from everyone who wants them all to be five.



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