Todd J. McCaffrey Writes Pern Competently, but That’s All

Tonight’s review is for three books written in the “Pern” universe created by Anne McCaffrey; her son, Todd J. McCaffrey (born Todd Johnson), has continued to write in this mythos and in at least one case, Anne McCaffrey’s name is still listed as a collaborator on the following books: Dragonheart, Dragongirl, and Dragon’s Time

This series is often called “The Dragonriders of Pern” as every novel features dragons in it one way or another; these novels split the difference between science fiction and fantasy as there’s a solid scientific basis for the dragons based on genetic engineering that’s enlarged the Pernese fire lizard — a being that flies, eats the deadly Thread (a mycorrhizoid spore that’s inimical to life that falls every few hundred years or so from the “Red Star,” actually a rogue planet in Pern’s star system), and can be Impressed (that is, bonded to a human being).  Fire lizards, like their much-larger dragon cousins, can feel emotions and can and do think — but they have very short memories for most things.   Dragons can actually flame the thread out of the sky, the queen dragons with flamethrowers, the rest of them by chewing firestone.

At the start of these novels, it’s now year 508 AF (after the founding of the colony), and Thread is about to start falling from the sky.

Now that I’ve set the world, let’s get to it.

Dragonheart, the twenty-second novel in the Pernese mythos, is about Fiona, the sole remaining daughter of Lord Holder Bemin of Fort Hold.  She’s Bemin’s only heir as a deadly plague killed off all her brothers and sisters.  However, she quickly Impresses queen dragonet Talenth (Lord Holder Bemin is just going to have to make do with someone else); the rest of the story has to do with a terrible illness, unrelated to the plague, that has struck both the fire lizards and the dragons.  Fiona and her growing queen have to come of age amidst immense turmoil and strife; how will she deal with it?  (Obviously I’m not about to give this away.)

This book was weakened, severely, by one thing: the fire lizards were sent away too early in the novel — within the first thirty-five pages, in fact, as it was feared that the dragons would get the illness from them as they are such close genetic “cousins.”  As this is rather large, 500-plus pages book, it seems very odd to send the fire lizards away so quickly.

Worse yet, sending the fire lizards away is framed as a major sacrifice.  While this is true — it’s like sending your pet away, except this pet can think a little bit and let you know what’s going on (unlike a cat or dog); dragons are more intelligent than fire lizards — for any reader, even one that’s familiar to the series, to get used to the fire lizards, then say goodbye to them in the first thirty-five pages was nonsensical, especially as it turned out that the dragons were already infected and the “sacrifice” wasn’t needed.  Worse yet, no one went to get the fire lizards, as they clearly could’ve done one way or another; this did not follow from the narrative at all.

To be blunt: by the time we get to Lessa and F’lar (from the first trilogy, Dragonflight, Dragonquest, and The White Dragon), few people know anything at all about the fire lizards, much less that they can be Impressed by humans.  So all of this smacked of expediency — as in, the authors know that humans lost their knowledge of fire lizards at some point, so why not get rid of them here and save steps? — rather than doing something that would’ve been essential to the plot.

The pluses here?  I liked Fiona.  I liked Talenth.  I liked the people in the Weyrs.  I enjoyed all the dragons, and I understood the problems with the illness that hit the dragons.  And the solution Fiona came up with to help with the dragon illness (which I won’t spoil, except to say it’s not a cure) follows from other books in this mythos; I can’t fault it.

But this was more “paint by numbers” Pern than anything original, I fear.

Grade: C-

Next up is Dragongirl, which is more about Fiona and her gold dragon Talenth.  There’s been a major disaster; Telgar Weyr’s entire complement of dragons has been lost Between (which is a place that has no time and no space and no breath, but dragons and their riders must pass through it to get wherever they go).  Now, Telgar Weyr is unoccupied; Fiona’s queen is the most senior that is not already a senior Weyrwoman (that is, head of the Weyr), so she ends up going to Telgar Weyr to lead it.  The book ends on a major cliffhanger (which again, I won’t spoil), which both helps and hurts the book.

Now, this book also had its problems.  Fiona is a likable character, and I enjoyed seeing how she interacted with various others, including Lorana, a dragonrider who’s lost her queen to the very bad dragon illness.  That illness is still ongoing; Harper Kindan, Lorana, Fiona, and a few others are trying to “race against time” for a cure.

Yet you’d think that there’s no need for them to race anything, as dragons can go Between time as well as space.  So I really didn’t understand this; the whole, “We can’t break time . . . but we can cheat it” tagline, repeated as often as author McCaffrey felt he could get away with it, didn’t help.

Also, there’s a bit too much detail here about the four-fold relationship Weyrleader T’mar, Weyrwoman Fiona, ex-queenrider Lorana and Harper Kindan have — it’s a polygamous relationship, and for the most part I didn’t need to know all the detailing that McCaffrey goes into.

Still, there’s nothing to really fault here; it’s well-written, but it didn’t come to life for me — that’s really my main problem with it.

Grade: C

Finally, there’s Dragon’s Time, where Anne McCaffrey is listed as senior writer, Todd J. McCaffrey as the junior.  This one reads better, but it’s also shorter at just over 300 pages; oddly enough, it features a note to readers from Anne McCaffrey that says she does read and comment on all of Todd’s efforts.

Here, the dragon illness has finally been solved for good and all, but there are still problems because all of the Weyrs are badly undermanned.  Will Lorana, Fiona, and the others be able to fix the newest batch of woe?  Or won’t they?

I enjoyed this last book the most of them, but it still felt incomplete.  As there is another novel forthcoming, Dragonrider, in 2012, perhaps that’s why this one feels like it absolutely could not stand alone.

Grade: B-

My advice is to buy all three of these books in paperback, or better yet, get them from the library.  Because while none are what I’d call horrible, they’re really not outstanding, either.  They’re merely competent.  And while that’s better than nothing, I’d rather read something with a bit of life and light to it than this.

— reviewed by Barb

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  1. Just reviewed Three Pernese Novels for SBR « Barb Caffrey's Blog

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