Wednesday, 4 November 2015

The Blog Fantastic 043: Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern Review (Unread 029)

Every once in a while I like to look at the Blog Fantastic page and assess the reviews I’ve done so far. Most of the time when I do this it’s to help me decide which book I should read next. As regular readers know, I’m reading several series at the same time rather than read a single series from start to finish before moving on. I do this because I like variety in my reading pile. That’s how I roll.

This time, what stood out to me, is how many reviews I’ve written of books in Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series. This is my seventh review in that series, more than any other series I’ve read so far and I think I know why. This series has been one of the most enjoyable to read since I’ve started the project. Not only do I enjoy reading the books, I find the reviews are relatively easy to write. I don’t have to think too much about what the content of the review will be, it sort of comes out naturally once I’ve finished reading. This differs from some of the other series I’ve reviewed.

Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time is kind of a pain because the books take so long to read. They literally take me weeks and sometimes it’s discouraging because those books regularly have entire chapters of 20+ pages where next to nothing happens. Other times, I’m devouring roughly 200 pages during a weekend because out of the blue, the plot kicks in and there is action galore. The books also give me conflicting feelings as I fluctuate from love to hate, sometime within a single chapter. They’re so sprawling in content and length that I find them a little exhausting. Other series that I absolutely love, like Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea, are also hard to review. The difficulty is caused by different reasons though. LeGuin’s books are just excellent, masterpieces of the genre. When I review them I can’t help but feel inadequate, as if my commentary doesn’t begin to describe the excellence of her writing and the stories contained in her books.

None of those problems plague my reading or my reviewing of McCaffrey’s Pern series. So far, all six volumes that I’ve read and reviewed were both enjoyable to read and to write about. There seems to be an endless amount of details added to the series with each new volume. That, and the author’s clear willingness to explore more than a single set of core characters as well as different time periods, makes these book interesting to read. Because each book is built up from similar elements, namely the dragons and the stories’ setting on the planet Pern, they all feel familiar. However, because they all focus on a different aspect of life of Pern or a different kind of threat (there is always the threat of Thread, but other things come into play as well), they all retain their unique identity as individual volumes. It would be difficult to find better proof of this than Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern.

McCaffrey started a story with Dragonflight. She continued that story in Dragonquest only to take a side turn and tell a more personal tale with the first two volumes in the Harper Hall trilogy which focused on Menolly. Both those series combined together with The White Dragon and Dragondrums. With the seventh volume of the series, McCaffrey seemed poised to continue her ongoing story. Instead, she jumps back from the 9th Pass to the 6th Pass, about a thousand years earlier in Pern’s history. Here, we get to discover the story of one of Pern’s legendary Dragonriders, Moreta. It’s such a change in focus and so far removed from the chronology of the story readers were following since Dragonflight that McCaffrey felt the need to explain her decision in an Author’s Note at the beginning of the book. Clearly her fictional universe grew in size and detail to a point where a single storyline could no longer contain it. There were other time periods and different characters to explore. There is so much about Pern that we still didn’t know and so many things that F’ar, Lessa, Robinton and the others were still in the process of discovering, but McCaffrey sends us on a detour with Moreta. That Moreta is better than some of the previous volumes only goes to show how McCaffrey was improving as a writer, world builder, and storyteller. That fans reciprocated by buying Moreta and keeping in on the bestseller list for several weeks just goes to show that they were ready to trust McCaffrey and follow her wherever she chose to go next.

Similarly to the previous Pern novels, there are dragons, threadfall, and all sorts of other familiar wonders and dangers. Even the plot is relatively familiar. An event caused by the environment of Pern threatens the lives and survival of humanity. It’s a tale of survival but it’s different than the events we’re used to reading about. This is a time on Pern where Holders and Weyrfolk know about the dangers of Thread and their society is already organized to deal with this constant threat. That’s very different from the events taking place during the 9th Pass. This time, the danger comes in the form of a viral epidemic that threatens to incapacitate and kill enough people which would then result in the Weyrs’ inability to fight against Thread. Pernese are so weakened by the epidemic that the natural dangers of their adopted planet might once again lead to extinction and the complete collapse of civilization.

As a well-respected leader and Weywoman at Fort Weyr, Moreta is one of the key figures in the fight for survival and we follow the story of these events primarily through her point of view. This time around, it struck me how generally simple McCaffrey’s plots are for her Pern novels. Yet, the format works because with each book she’s able to seamlessly weave daily events about life on Pern into the larger plot requirements. In Moreta we learn about the purposes of runnerbeast and how important livestock breeding is to the economy. We also get a fascinating insight into the world of healers, particularly dragon healers. It’s a job at which Moreta is very skilled and reading about her and her work with some of the wounded dragons was among some of the highlights of this volume. The virus’s origins and the use of the Southern Continent were a delight. That McCaffrey has been using the Southern Continent as a multi-volume plot element without making it tedious is another testament to her skill with details and long term story development. It continues to be a mysterious place while also feeding different kinds of stories.

Another strong element of Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern is that knowledge is a tricky thing on Pern because of the lack of any consistent and practical way of passing down knowledge to future generations. This has been the source of a lot of problems throughout Pernese history. It’s not a problem specific to the people during the time of the 9th Pass. It also exists during the 6th Pass in a different form. Knowledge is still a rare commodity but that kind of knowledge that has been lost doesn’t concern dragons and combating threadfall. There are many areas of knowledge and all are important, but sometimes it takes a particular situation (like threadfall after a long Interval or a virus epidemic) to prove just how important lost knowledge can be. It’s one of the recurring themes of the entire series.

Part of my reading experience with this latest Pern novel is that I realized just how much I appreciate McCaffrey’s realism. That there is no magic on Pern is one of the things that make this series different from most other series in which dragons play such a large role. I want to avoid using a label like sci-fi/fantasy mash-up to describe these books because that makes it seem so unoriginal. These books are unique in that the world of Pern is essentially a proto-medieval setting but because the time period in which the stories take place follows an era of advanced technology, science fictional elements do pop up rather regularly. The content in which science appears is so different than what we usually see in science fiction or fantasy novels. It’s not a fantasy setting in which some technological elements are being created or discovered (gun powder, engines, etc.) or a science fictional setting with bits of fantasy or magic in it. Even more impressive is that McCaffrey has been able to sustain this unique mix of science and fantasy for a multi-volume series without making it tiresome or repetitive. On the contrary, it gets increasingly detailed and engrossing as the series progresses. This will be highlighted in a couple more books when I finally get to Dragondawn, the first book chronologically the first Pern book I ever read.

I love the colours on this cover by Michael Whelan.

The Dragonriders of Pern isn’t the best series in terms of pure writing, but few books can rival this series in terms of enchantment. It’s so imaginative and thoroughly realized that McCaffrey makes Pern feel like a real place. That’s probably the main reason that these are some of my favourite books to read. Dragonriders of Pern used to have a strongly devoted fan base, one that seems to have faded in recent years. Following McCaffrey’s death and the lack of any new publications, the conversation surrounding these books is often limited to pointing out its flaws and dismissing the series wholesale. It saddens me that such a wonderfully imagined setting with numerous compelling characters can so easily be put aside in favour of newer series. I’m not suggesting there aren’t any good new series being published today, only pointing out that old series such as this one can suffer by being dismissed in favour of something else simply because other books are newer. Pern has its flaws, I’m mentioned some of them before, but dammit if they aren’t consistently enjoyable books. I’m proud that it’s an important part of The Blog Fantastic because it’s really been great to rediscover these books. 

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