My first exposure to Anne McCaffrey’s world of Pern came in the mid 90s when I bought The Dragon Lover’s Guide to Pern from a bookstore that likely no longer exists. I wasn’t a Pern fan at the time. Knew nothing about it really, but I wanted another collection of dragon art. This was before I could hop on the internet and find thousands of  pictures in seconds (or minutes in those dial up days.) On the way home from the store I skimmed through the book in the back of my parents’ old Dodge and enjoyed the pictures, though I did find the dragons’ eyes a bit strange. I grew interested in reading this series until I saw something shocking.

The dragons communicate with people through telepathy.

That was enough to turn me off from reading the series. Petty, yes, especially coming from someone who saw nothing wrong with magic in a story, but it did. Maybe because it’s something I couldn’t see myself doing and so I couldn’t connect with the characters speaking through their minds. In retrospect, I’m sure that it would have gone over better if telepathy was part of the games I played as a kid instead of shooting fireballs and cure spells. By the time I made it home with the book–it was a good hour ride through the boonies to the nearest decent bookstore–I was ready to shelve it. That I did. My only exposure to the series for the next fifteen years came from seeing the books in stores. It turns out there were quite a few. From time to time I’d see even more. McCaffrey must have been a good writer to have so many works out.

I kept this in mind. After years of maturing I decided to give Pern another chance. To lessen my risk, I bought a copy at a used bookstore. I have an 80’s edition of this:

My copy has a corner taken out the cover and plenty of spine creasing. The edges of the pages all look slightly warmed, if not burnt.

The series has more of a sci-fi feel to it than fantasy, dealing with planets, stars, time travel and teleportation. Wizards and standard magic are absent and the setting takes place in an alien world instead of the usual old European influenced landscape. No Jar Jar Binks. Don’t worry. Technically the dragons aren’t even dragons, called so by the humans as they’re similar in appearance. These dragons grow very attached to their riders, to the point where they give up on life if the partner dies. Losing a friend is hard enough, but breaking that telepathic bond must be worse. I’m sure you could get a similar effect by taking a World of War Craft junkie from his account.

The book is made up of several published short stories  from the 60s. Fortunately it all flows together as a cohesive whole. However, McCaffrey uses new terms without explanation. It can be frustrating trying to understand what is happening or what some ideas mean. Yes, the book has a glossary in the back, but a simple description when appropriate would have saved needless flipping back and forth.

The story centers around a young woman named Lessa who bonds with a new queen dragon, but most of the interactions with her are with the human characters, most of which have apostrophe names: F’lar, R’gul, L’tol, and so on. It’s exciting that we have intelligent dragons that can communicate with people (or only their riders, unless you’re Lessa. Then you can talk to any of them) but McCaffrey denies the reader much from them. I grew to like Mnementh in particular, but we rarely hear what he has to say. Despite the bonds, it feels the dragons are more tools than characters we can get to know. Maybe this changes in later books. I hope so. It is a novel idea to have dragons who are more than just evil beasts at least. I’m sure this concept inspired future authors like Naomi Novik.

The main threat comes from an orbiting star that every few hundred years, called turns, drops spores onto the planet that destroy everything they touch. It’s about to happen again and only dragon fire can stop them. Convenient.

McCaffrey’s innovative world and treatment of dragons makes this an important work from a historical perspective. However, a good story is weakened by human characters who have a knack for being unpleasant. F’lar in particular comes of self serving and how he doesn’t explain himself to Lessa is frustrating. That can work, but here it frustrates the reader too because he or she is left in the dark when something needs to be understood to make sense of the world. His romance with Lessa is hard to swallow, though misery loves company. I understand their dragons had an impact on the union, but that doesn’t excuse an unlikable character we need to sympathize with. The underdeveloped dragons weaken the story too.

Still, it’s worth checking out if you’re a fantasy or sci-fi fan. There isn’t much, if anything else like it. It’ll stick with you long after reading.

***1/2 of *****

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