Saturday, 17 January 2015

The Blog Fantastic 034: The White Dragon review (Unread 003)

The Dragonriders of Pern is one of the series I’ve written the most about as part of my Blog Fantastic project. It’s a cheat since it’s pretty clearly a science fiction series but my blog, my rules. The series has a shit ton of dragons in it and that’s enough to quality it as fantasy for me. The White Dragon is the third and final volume in the Dragonriders of Pern trilogy but it’s the fifth Pern novel to have been published. I’ve been reading them in publication order so I broke up the original trilogy with the first two volumes of the second (or concurrent?) trilogy focusing on the Harper Hall. As such, the main plot of The Dragonriders of Pern continues with this volume but it doesn’t bring a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. Certainly it wraps up several elements of the story so far but it also poses many new questions.

The trouble with the Pern series is that it’s not something you can easily adapt into a trilogy of books. The problem is that Anne McCaffrey’s stories are essentially slice of life. There are no villains, instead the books has a few antagonists. With Pern she’s developed a colonized planet and the Dragonriders of Pern trilogy focuses on the rediscovery of dragonriders’ role in Pernese society. The first and second books are mostly about discovering the fictional world and it works well because the reader learns along with the characters. It makes for a very interesting read because the world McCaffrey created is rather fascinating. The White Dragon has plenty of moments of discovery and innovation as well but it brings a more balanced approach to it because we also get several chapters’ worth of everyday life on Pern from the point of view of several different characters.

Admittedly, The White Dragon is not a page turner. This has to do less with the subject matter than it does with the style of story being told. The book doesn’t deal much with a plot aside from the ongoing mission to better society. While the dragons often make us think that this should be a fantasy series, the storytelling approach and the creation of modern Pernese society definitively prove that this is a work of science fiction. As such, it uses very few tropes of the fantasy genre and despite resembling a feudal societal system and having (at best) Renaissance level technology. Unlike a lot of fantasy that are set in a medieval time period, Pernese usually do not act like characters as seen in those kinds of fantasy novels. These people are truly of another planet even though they originated from Earth. They act differently because their entire culture, planet, and way of life are different than that of Earth, regardless of the time period.

All of these elements are demonstrated very well in The White Dragon. For a Pern novel, it excels at combining Pernese politics of Holds, crafthalls, and Weyrs along with the exploration of the planet and additional discoveries of the people’s past. It incorporates several main characters from the previous four books (Menolly and Piemur were a nice surprise) into the larger narrative. It even had a main character which got his own coming-of-age story which focuses the story a little more than it would have if McCaffrey would have treated the story as an ensemble cast. The additional focus on Jaxom and Ruth was appreciated, even though Jaxom is annoying for the first half of the book.

The real treat of the book is Ruth, the titular white dragon. He’s delightful. He was impressed with Jaxom during Dragonquest (we got the same scene from Menolly’s point of view in one of the Harper Hall trilogy books) and at the time nobody though the dragon would live. Ruth has some form of mutation as there has never been a white dragon before. Additionally, he’s smaller (about half the size) than other dragons. This book starts a couple of years after the end of Dragonquest with Ruth and Jaxom doing very well. By the end of this book he’s been alive and has thrived for several years. Along the way he’s demonstrated special abilities and superior intellect that other dragons do not have. He’s unique in more than one way but what makes him such an engaging character is that McCaffrey gave him more personality than she’s given any other dragon up to that point.  

Unfortunately I don’t have as much praise for Jaxom. He’s very annoying at first, mostly because he doesn’t realize how lucky he is. He’s the Lord Holder of Ruatha Hold and a dragonrider. He has a strong sense of entitlement and I found it pretty irritating. His love for Ruth and his willingness to work for the good of the planet are his best qualities. His willingness to work hard for the good of Pern sometimes feels like he’s just showing off, but not always. He keeps a rather huge and important secret to himself for several months. It’s a considerable accomplishment for him and Ruth but the knowledge of it could easily have caused friction between Holders and the Weyrs. His love for Ruth and Ruth’s love for Jaxom are one of the most engaging elements of the book. They help each other to better themselves and their unyielding support is inspirational, even amongst other dragonriders.

It’s pretty refreshing to have McCaffrey writer such a loving relationship as its one of the things she struggles with. Relationship and sexuality as written about in Pern novels are often one of the weakest parts of the books. The same can be said of The White Dragon. Unfortunately, she kind of warps the purity of Jaxom and Ruth’s love during one scene of the book. Most of the sex in the book is related to Jaxom. Early on he uses his title as Lord to seduce a young woman named Corana from one of the surrounding regions of Ruatha Hold. At one point in the story Jaxom witnesses a mating flight with a green dragon and while wondering why Ruth doesn’t want to mate with the green dragon he gets incredibly turned on by the mating fligt. He flies to Corana and has sex with her in the middle of a field and discovers that Ruth piggy backs on his sexual encounters via their psychic link. Let me say that again: Ruth doesn’t have interest in sex with dragons but he likes to participate (albeit not physical, thank you for not going there McCaffrey) in Jaxom’s human sexual encounters. That’s kind of fucked up. Yet, as odd and disturbing as that concept is I have to give credit to McCaffrey that she created the world of Pern and in many ways it’s still a unique series well over forty years after the publication of Dragonflight. This odd and disturbing sexual encounter is something unique to Pern.

Thankfully, sexuality doesn’t appear too often in this book and there are several moments of genuine (and non-creepy) love in the book. Lessa and F’lar aren’t creepy at all in this volume and there is a beautiful moment between Robinton and Menolly. It was loving and caring, while also a little tragic, and I was genuinely moved. I was partially annoyed to read it because it proves that McCaffrey can write about human relationships in an effective and nuanced way yet she more often freaks me out with her strange ideas about sexuality. It’s unfortunate that the true depth of such a moment is completely lost on people who haven’t read Dragonsong and Dragonsinger before reading this book.

I have to say that of the first five Pern novels The White Dragon is likely the best one. It’s more balanced compared to the previous books. There are more good elements while also having less bad elements than the rest of the series. The bad elements prevent it from rising to the level of the great fantasy or science fiction novels of all time but there is enough here to entertain and intrigue readers. I look forward to see how it compares with Dragondawn as I have fond memories of that one but so far, this might be the strongest Pern novel. Next up is Dragondrums and I’m really looking forward to that one because Piemur changed quite a bit between the end of Dragonsinger and the time we meet up with him in The White Dragon

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