I've been reading Anne McCaffrey's Dragonrider novels since 1979, and Pern has long been the place I love to visit in my daydreams. While I can imagine flying a dragon and fighting Threads, I can more readily picture myself living and working in the Harper Hall, immersing myself in music. Anne, over more than 30 years, has come up with a wealth of believable characters, people I could envision meeting and talking to. Pern is real to me.
And then there's Anne's son, Todd. With Anne getting too old to do much solo writing, Todd was a logical choice to take over her world. He grew up with the stories the same way I did, and could ask his mother for the whys and wherefores.
So I started following his stories, set in the Third Pass, a full two thousand Turns (years) before the original stories. For a time, I was enthusiastic. Sure, some of Todd's efforts were a bit rough, but he was new to the trade and would surely only get better.
In anticipation of reading the lastest Pern novel, Dragongirl, I re-read its immediate predecessor, Dragonheart, and was reminded of why I liked it as much as I did. I also skimmed through the highlights of Dragonblood, an earlier novel whose events largely overlap those of Dragonheart.
I recommend that you read at least Dragonblood and Dragonheart before you pick up Dragongirl. Todd's other Pern novels form part of the backstory, so are less important.
Dragongirl begins right where Dragonheart leaves off, so I was able to plunge right in. The main protagonist is Fiona, a gold dragon rider who has just spent three Turns in the past, managing Igen Weyr mainly on her own, having to make a lot of serious decisions despite being only in her mid-teens. Now, back in the present, Fiona is butting heads with Cisca, the senior Weyrwoman of Fort Weyr. Can strong-willed Fiona learn to accept being a junior Weyrwoman again?
As it turns out, she doesn't have to. If you've already read Dragonblood, you know what tragedy befalls the riders of Telgar Weyr. Fiona is the logical person to rush over there and take over. A lot of people have come to appreciate her, so she has no shortage of helpers.
Among those who join her are Kindan the Harper and Lorana, an ex-dragonrider who heroically sacrificed her own gold to save all of Pern from the dragon sickness. Lorana and Fiona already have a peculiar sort of psychic bond, due to Lorana's immensely powerful attempt to save the Telgar dragons, calling in vain for them to return from Between. Plus, Lorana can hear all dragons, a very valuable ability not seen since the time of Torene of Benden in the First Pass, some 450 Turns earlier.
There is an extremely moving scene in the story where the replacement dragonriders of Telgar are standing at attention in the Weyr Bowl, honoring all of the departed in the form of a roll call for the dead. "Who stands for D'gan?" "I stand for D'gan. His last thoughts were for the Weyrs." This was very powerful stuff, and at that point I was ready to give Dragongirl a five-star review.
And then the story started to unravel about halfway through. First, there was the initial mating flight of Fiona's dragon, Talenth. This is a major milestone in the life of a Weyrwoman, and also important for this reason: The rider of the bronze dragon who flies Talenth becomes the Weyrleader, the man who organizes attempts to fight Pern's ancient enemy, Thread. Also, mating dragons produce eggs, and Pern is desperately in need of dragons right now.
Can a bronze dragon whose rider is in a coma succeed in flying a gold? You'll find out. And it's pretty weird.
After this, Fiona and Lorana and Kindan and the new Weyrleader are in some complicated sort of mutual relationship. They all love each other. It's both polygamy and polyandry and -- heck -- how about poly-dragony?
This is where I think Todd went wrong. It's no mystery to longtime Pern fans that this sort of stuff goes on in Weyrs. It's an inevitable side-effect of being telepathically linked to mating dragons. The riders of green and blue dragons, almost always men, tend to prefer the company of other men. Anne mentioned in one of her very earliest novels that conservative holdbred people found Weyr life very uncomfortable.
Todd goes into too much detail, and the story seriously bogs down. "OK, Todd, I get it," I wanted to tell him. "Can we fight Thread, now?"
But that's no help, because of the relentless catastrophes befalling the dragonriders. Every time they fight Thread, more dragons and/or their riders are fatally injured. It can be gruesome. I credit Todd for very vivid writing. If more dragons aren't found, fast, will there be any left past the end of the Turn? Worse, the queens suddenly aren't laying enough eggs, and everyone's afraid they know why.
If the theme of Todd's previous books was Plague, the current one is surely Carnage.
I could get close to Anne's characters because they tended to stick around for multiple books. With Todd, I'm always wondering who the next victim will be. Too many disposable characters, and too depressing a storyline. The worst part is knowing that this story ends with a cliffhanger, another key character making a major sacrifice. If I want my Pern fix, I'll have to pick up at least two more books to get it.
It was prophesied to Lorana that the way forward would be dark and long, and that's exactly what I'm worried about. I don't know about you, but I like to finish a Pern book feeling halfway good. Right now, I'm not.
So, read Dragongirl if you must, but be sure you know what you're in for. For myself, I might have to wait until the rest of the series is out in paperback before I get any more. Or maybe I should just cut my losses and go back to Anne's works.