Every now and then a book surprises me, especially when searching through the often dated fiction for Vintage SciFi Month. Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight, first in a mighty line of 23 novels set in the Pern universe, is one of those. It’s a surprise because I’m not a big fan of fantasy, yet I keep finding books, like Liz Williams’ Comet Weather, that are beginning to make a convert out of me.
What I love about Dragonflight is the explosive relationship between its two major characters, Lessa and F’lar, and the way the love-anger between these strong personalities grows through their involvement with the dragons in their charge and the mysteries they must solve to save their planet, Pern.
And Pern is very much in danger from the periodic passage of the Red Star. When closest to Pern in its long orbit, it shoots out a poisonous rain of material called Threads. The Threads are capable of burning their way through people and into the land, destroying all life in its path.
Only fiery dragons can neutralize the assault of Threads, so in times long past before this story begins, groups of dragons and their riders, lived in protected cavern dwellings called Weyrs. There, supported by tithes contributed by the surviving domains, called Holds, they kept themselves ready for the next bombardment from the Red Star.
The problem is that the last Thread attack was so long ago that the lords of the Holds no longer believe they exist and want to cut off supplying the Weyrs. In fact, there is only one Weyr left, and it’s in terrible disrepair. It doesn’t really have enough dragons or dragonriders to meet a large scale Thread attack, but things start to turn around when F’lar meets Lessa.
Lessa has special powers to influence people and dragons, but she has spent her adolescent years in hiding after the massacre of the rest of her royal family. They used to rule a Hold called Ruatha until the vicious Lord Fax invaded and led a bloody takeover. Lessa decided she could only survive if she hid in plain sight by pretending to be a drudge doing menial work in the Hold’s kitchens, getting so filthy and bedraggeld that no one would pay her any mind.
Nevertheless she plotted her revenge and was able to provoke F’lar, when he arrives in Ruatha on the Search for a new Weyrwoman, and the hated Fax into a deadly fight. F’lar kills his opponent and figures out that the whole situation precipitating the fight was subtly brought about by a seemingly scruffy non-entity. F’lar senses Lessa’s powers and takes her back as the new Weyrwoman who will nurture the dragon queen, Ramoth, an enormous golden beast.
Once ensconced at the Weyr, scrubbed and appropriately dressed for her new role, Lessa is revealed as an almost frail young woman but of indomitable spirit. She had planned her life around deposing Fax and installing a rightful Lord of Ruatha, and here she is snatched away by an arrogant man riding a huge dragon.
Their relationship is furious from the outset:
“Yes,” she taunted him with a toss of her chin. “I lied. … I merely wanted to be sure you challenged Fax.” He grabbed her wrist, stung that he had twice fallen to her prodding. “You provoked a dragonman to fight? To kill? When he is on Search?” “Search? What should I care for a Search? I have Ruatha as my Hold again. For ten Turns I have worked and waited, schemed and suffered for that. What could your Search mean to me?”Dragonflight in Dragonriders of Pern, Kindle edition, Location 946
Yet F’lar begins to see what this young woman is made of and becomes more convinced than ever that she will fit her new role:
“Her confusion was almost childlike and struck F’lar forcibly. He had had no time or desire to consider her prodigious accomplishment. Now he realized some measure of her indomitable character. She could not have been above ten Turns of age herself when Fax had murdered her family. Yet somehow, so young, she had set herself a goal and managed to survive both brutality and detection long enough to secure the usurper’s death.”Dragonflight in Dragonriders of Pern, Kindle edition, Location 1014
And she begins to appreciate F’lar’s power, though she never wants to admit it. While F’lar is schooling Lessa in her role as Weyrwoman, she gets insight into the relationship between rider and dragon:
She had, of course, heard of the strange affinity between rider and dragon, but this was the first time she realized that love was part of that bond. Or that this reserved, cold man was capable of such deep emotion. … She looked at the dragonman’s face, seeing him as a person, not a symbol, for the first time. His coldness was caution, she decided, not lack of emotion. His sternness must be assumed to offset his youth, for he couldn’t be that much her senior in Turns. There was a blackness about him that was not malevolent; it was a brooding sort of patience.Dragonflight in Dragonriders of Pern, Kindle edition, Location 1226 and 1282
And Lessa gradually grows into her role as Ramoth’s nurturing rider. Unknown to F’lar she can communicate mentally not just with the golden queen but with all the dragons and learns to use the powers dragons possess to figure out secrets of the past that will help restore the lost glory of the Weyr.
The relationship between Lessa and F’lar takes a wild turn just as Ramoth and F’lar’s mount, Mnementh, take to the sky for their mating flight.
All other sense and feeling were aloft with Ramoth. And she, Ramoth-Lessa, was alive with limitless power, her wings beating effortlessly to the thin heights, elation surging through her frame, elation and—desire. She sensed rather than saw the great bronze males pursuing her. She was contemptuous of their ineffectual efforts. For she was wingfree and unconquerable.Dragonflight in Dragonriders of Pern, Kindle edition, Location 1977
The joy of feeling new power merges with her sexual awakening. This is one of a series of great scenes when human and dragon energies are suddenly unleashed. Lessa and F’lar become lovers but maintain a prickly relationship. He keeps trying to restrain her to a traditional feminine role, and she keeps breaking boundaries to uncover new strategies and abilities that may be able to stave off the next attack of Threads.
Dragonflight is a high-spirited adventure, full of surprises, with a narrative driven by powerful relationships that are all about breaking traditional roles. It’s an exciting reading experience, and, if you get interested, you’ll have another two dozen novels and collections of stories to keep you going for some time.