Dragonflight: You and What Army?

(by Silver Adept)

When we last left them, F’lar the Egotistical had nonconsensual sex with Lessa while their dragons mated, placing F’lar in charge of the Weyr with Lessa, properly timed to greet an invading force from the Holds around them that are understandably pissed off about their supplies being raided.

Dragonflight: Part II: Content Notes: Kidnapping

So it’s time for the War Council of the Weyr, and here we hit one of the strong issues of worldbuilding in Pern square on. With an army at their gates, F’lar puts into action a fairly simple plan to prevent the army from attacking them, after explaining the situation doesn’t look as bad as possible. First, he shoots down the idea of using flame against the people:

“That’s enough!” F’lar said in a hard voice. “We are dragonmen! Remember that, and remember also – never forget it – this fellowship is sworn to protect.

Which is all nice and good, but according to the history that’s been hinted at up to this point, the thing that is being protected against hasn’t been around for several generations. When the Holds started shorting their tribute, the dragonriders would only really need to intimidate a little bit to get their proper allotment. Maybe nobody gets toasted, but a nice demonstration of what dragons are capable of should be enough to remind everyone who holds the power.

Which is where F’lar goes next.

“…it’s another matter to face a dragon, hot, tired, and cold sober.”

“The mounted men, too, will be too much occupied with their beasts to do any serious fighting.”

Ultimately, however, F’lar settles on the plan that risks the least dragonriders, provides the most leverage, and works the fastest.

“Ask yourself this, dragonmen, if the Lords of the Holds are here, who is holding the Holds for the Lords? Who keeps guard on the Inner Hold, over all the Lords hold dear?”

Lessa approves of this plan wholeheartedly in a way that suggests she wouldn’t mind some bloodshed, too. So the riders go out, use their teleporting dragons, and take sufficient hostages from the Holds to bring back for leverage over the incoming armies. And then plan to go out and intimidate the armies into a proper submissive pose to the Weyr.

Um, tell me again why the dragonriders haven’t been doing this all the time? Giant, teleporting, potentially fire-breathing dragons versus standard human armaments and armor, hidden in forts. Even if the dragons don’t ever attack, siegecraft against any one Hold should be easy – the dragons don’t have to bring their supplies with them, they can rotate in reinforcements in the blink of an eye, they are their own siege engines and air superiority, and dragons and their riders are going to easily be able to eat any supplies not taken into the Hold. And, possibly, those taken in, depending on how big the sizes of the rooms are. The dragonriders could possibly teleport in their invading force, one dragon at a time, if even one room in a Hold is big enough to hold a dragon. It doesn’t make sense – even a half-staffed Weyr such as Benden should easily be able to dominate the area surrounding. Including any trade routes. The situation where the Holds start to feel independent of the Weyrs and short them, disrespect them, and think of them as useless shouldn’t happen, even if the initial plan was for isolation during a pause in their traditional action. The minute hunger started, there would be polite reminders of obligations, and then very impolite ones. We are apparently supposed to believe that several successions of Weyrleader chose not to enforce traditions or to take their fill from the Holds, despite being in the obviously superior position. I don’t buy it.

So, as F’lar puts his plan into play, we see the action and justification from one of the Lords Holder, who complains that the dragonriders are lazy and they repeatedly steal promising young men and women that could have been used for political marriage for their Searches. (Who are never heard from again, we note. What happens to candidates that don’t Impress, again?) The raiding of supplies, of course, is the last straw. So they intend to tell the Weyr to be self-sufficient from now on. A plan that rather quickly falls apart at the appearance of actual dragons and the notification that all of their noblewomen have been taken hostage, a clear violation of the traditions about the sanctity of their Holds. F’lar, apparently, has no trouble not enforcing traditions he doesn’t like. In any case, the Holders surrender, agree to tribute and to bring their Holds back into form from when Thread fell, and depart.

That said, the Lords Holder aren’t actually coming with unreasonable requests, even though we’re supposed to key into their contemptuous attitudes as the reason why they get marked with the antagonist tag. Surely the dragonriders can develop a logistics and support division that allows them to farm, raise animals, and make things so they can become self-sufficient in times of peace and prosperity. It’s not like they don’t have teleporting dragons that would let them continuously plant, harvest, and herd, regardless of what season it is on the planet. They could choose new riders from within the children of their own ranks, or at the very least, ask for volunteers to become riders from other places. I’m sure there are plenty of non-inheriting sons that are willing to gamble their lives on becoming a dragonrider. And “unmarriageable” daughters could be shipped off to the Weyr for a shot at becoming a queen rider.

But F’lar is uninterested in being reasonable in any aspect of his life. F’lar wants to be in control of everything in his life. So instead of trying to live harmoniously with his neighbors, he subjugates them with hostages and a show of military force. Instead of letting Lessa be her own person and a capable leader, F’lar restricts her, thinks of her has his property, and insists that she remain in the place he thinks she should be, cloaking himself in tradition (Traditioooooon!) as the justification for his controlling nature. F’lar is a monster cut from the same cloth as Fax, and then amplified because he has actual power, but he’s a protagonist, so we’re supposed to ignore that. Even though F’lar chose to uphold the claim of a tyrant and conqueror and pass a Hold to a barely-born child, rather than recognize the much older claim of one who is of the noble line of the place, because the conqueror and the child were men and the noble is a woman. Because he wanted to take Lessa back with him and control her. Because F’lar sees the world in a very specific way, and will use all his power to enforce that vision on anyone else. F’lar is a cult leader with actual power, which is a very dangerous thing. If the narrative wasn’t so invested in proving him right at every phase, he’d be the novel’s second, more dangerous antagonist, the one that Lessa unleashed unintentionally when she used him to kill Fax.

So when, in the middle of this grand plan going according to plan (because the narrative is very invested in showing us that women planning and trying to exercise power will always fail because they reach beyond their role, because that role is reserved for men, because Authorial Fiat) Lessa upstages him by flying out on Ramoth, F’lar is entirely pissed off and thinks about his standby tactic for dealing with uppity women – abuse and violence. Which his dragon cautions him against, but makes it out to be that it would be more of a Slap-Slap-Kiss situation, when we’ve already seen that F’lar will do real damage to Lessa if she provokes him where he can retaliate without witnesses.

So, with the Lords Holder sent packing, Part II comes to a close, and the plot finally arrives at where it has really wanted to be since the beginning – Threadfall.

This seems like a good spot to point out that if it seems like we’ve basically been running plot summaries up to this point, it’s because the story itself hasn’t delved into a lot of detail about the world and its characters up to this point. The story started with foreshadowing, but it also started at the end of Lessa’s revenge, instead of the beginning, where those ten Turns of Lessa hiding, biding her time, planning her strategies, engaging in sabotage, and slowly trying to accumulate enough resources to strike would have been a perfect vehicle for worldbuilding and character development. It could have been a novel all by itself.

And then, as Lessa is whisked away to her new life, we take a short stop at the hatching and then jump forward again to the breaking point of another crisis, with food shortages and antagonistic military parties, with only a few gestures toward history, lore, and literature, mostly saying “Yeah, there’s a world out there, and history, and lore, and others, but you’ll have to take our word for it because ooooh, conflict!” The opportunity there for even a little bit of characterization (F’lar is an impatient teacher, Lessa is a shit student on the surface, F’nor is remarkably good at explaining the practical aspects of everything and tempering the excesses of his brother’s grandiose desire for absolute control, etc.) is dashed beyond in the story’s haste to arrive where it could have conceivably started. The dash through stories also gives us some disorienting changes – in Part I, it’s like we’re playing a first-person adventure game, because we see individual staff, riders, and antagonists, with names or titles. In Part II, though, we’ve changed over to a turn-based strategy game where there are some named elite units, but mostly everyone else fades to generic unit names and responsibilities, and the logistical staff that were prominent in Part I are vanished, replaced only by the occasional advisor that reports on the conditions of the commoners. Part III? Could either be a first-person shooter, squad-based shooter, or a real-time strategy game, depending on how tightly the narrative wants to zoom in on how Thread gets fought. But the “little” people who keep everything running smoothly are gone, and there’s no indication they’ll be back. F’lar invisibling people makes sense, it’s what he does, but Lessa has spent a lot of time in those ranks, and as a potential subversive, it would make a lot more sense for her to be mixing it up with those people regularly. Unless we’re supposed to believe F’lar’s control is that good over Lessa, because the alternative is that Lessa has stopped caring about her old life because dragon-ness is just Inherently Superior.

To avoid these shifts in perspective, the narrative could have started with Lessa’s Impression and training as Weyrwoman as Part I, with this Holder conflict as the capstone, and the hitting Threadfall as Part II, where everything Lessa has learned sails out the window as the battle plan makes contact with the enemy. I know that later books will come back and start to fill in the backstory of various things hinted at here, but a little care and planning up front might have made for a better series payoff. As it stands, we’re a bit rushed, and the narrative hasn’t really given us much reason to root for Lessa, since it tends to enforce the idea that she’s Objectively Wrong, or for F’lar, since he doesn’t have to bend, grow, or otherwise deviate from his controlling personality to get anything done. The character I’m rooting for the most right now is F’nor, because he actually appears to be a good and decent person with brains in his head. What a different series this would be with him in charge.

Instead, the Terrible Twosome go forth to fight a menace from the past.

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9 thoughts on “Dragonflight: You and What Army?

  1. depizan June 5, 2014 at 12:46 pm

    This is all so brain-cramp inducing. As you point out, this situation doesn’t make sense. It’s like it was written to simultaneously try and cast the Weyr as the underdogs (people tend to support those) and be an example of how frikin’ awwwwwesome the dragonriders are. I get this weird feeling that I’m supposed to accept that people on Pern just sort of periodically forget about dragons – some of Fax’s behavior made little sense given that F’lar and F’nor showed up riding on honkin’ big dragons, and this Hold rebellion is that turned up several more notches. What in hell did they think they were going to do against dragons?

    Yes, the text states that they expected the dragonriders to just give up. But that makes no sense. We know the holders know that dragons are real, carnivorous, and they can pop out of nowhere, and they know that F’lar killed Fax … but they expect the dragonriders to just give up and talk about the power of the Weyr as “superstition.” I can barely articulate how much this doesn’t make sense. It’s on the order of a character knowing what fire is, knowing that it burns people, and then not understanding why they shouldn’t just put their hand in it.

    This is just terrible plotting. I’d call it an idiot plot, but its more like the characters are artificially prevented from acting on knowledge that the story acknowledges they have. Or actively act with total disregard for their knowledge. It’s…it’s just bizarre.

    And that’s beside my annoyance that the book is asking me to side with entitled bullies.

  2. Only Some Stardust June 5, 2014 at 1:48 pm

    They suffer from ‘Jedi from twenty years ago are a myth’ syndrome.

  3. depizan June 5, 2014 at 6:40 pm

    Only many, many times worse. Even if one doesn’t excuse the Jedi thing by assuming there was a propaganda campaign to encourage people to think exactly that, the Jedi had been nearly wiped out and the very few remaining Jedi were in hiding. It’d been 20 years since anyone had encountered someone they new was a Jedi. These holders are going to frikin’ talk to dragonriders. This is less equivalent to Admiral Motti getting himself Force choked by Vader and more equivalent to someone else at that meeting piping up two seconds later that he didn’t believe in the Force, either.

    I half expect the holders to forget dragons exist again halfway back to their holds.

    “Dude, where are our wives and retainers?”
    “I don’t know. That’s so weird. They must have wandered off.”
    “We should look for them.”
    “Good idea!”

    Two months later, at the Weyr
    “Where the %#$#@#$%%^ are our goods from the holds!?”
    “I’m sorry, sir, the holders have spent the past two months trying to figure out where their wives went.”
    “We’re holding them hostage right here!”
    “Yes, well, they have really bad memory problems.”
    “Oh for fucks sake.”

  4. Silver Adept June 7, 2014 at 11:48 am

    In other spots on Pern, maybe they can be forgiven for forgetting about dragons, because Future Knowledge, but not here. Definitely not here, because they have regular viewings, sightings, and likely, conversations with dragonriders. The closest fig leaf I can think of is that the Lords Holder were expecting to deal with the previous administration, who might have been convinced to accept trading as the new reality, but that still has to basically ignore that generations of dragonriders haven’t used the martial power in their Weyrs to enforce the rules on the Holders. Which requires an improbable amount of either virtue or stupidity on the part of Weyrleaders, especially the ones that let things continue while their people were starting to experience the possibility of food insecurity.

    There’s no real reason for this conflict, other than to give F’lar the ability to intimidate everyone and another excuse to think about beating Lessa.

  5. depizan June 8, 2014 at 11:06 am

    I can believe that the dragonriders haven’t had to use their martial power to enforce the rules in a long time, mainly because they so clearly hold the upper hand. I mean, really, teleporting dragons. It’s hard to top that in a psudo-medieval world. Which is why I have so much trouble with the idea of the holders attempting to intimidate the dragonriders into trading instead of how things have been. It feels like a leftover from some previous version of the book, in which the holders hadn’t just seen the dragonriders out on Search and stealing their best livestock and such.

    Not only is it written half as if they don’t believe in the power of dragons (while the other half talks about the dragonriders having just been on Search and all that), but I’ve seen scenes like this in other fiction, always with the idea that the group that thinks it has the power (holder equivalent) has no idea that the the person they’re going to intimidate actually has greater power. But there’s no explanation of why the holders should think they have the power in this situation. (Which is hilariously lampshaded by them being all “Oh shit, dragons are scary! I somehow forgot in the last couple months!” once the dragonriders arrive.)

    Where the hell was the editor?

    And, yeah, it’s just there so F’lar can flex his muscles.

    I have this feeling that she had scenes in mind and wrote so she could include them without caring a whole lot about making them plausible. … Oh dear, I suppose that makes her the literary equivalent of Michael Bay. Only with dragons instead of explosions.

  6. J. Random Scribbler June 11, 2014 at 12:03 am

    It would’ve actually been pretty easy for the Lords to prevent the kidnappings, at least in the alternate universe where they weren’t lobotomized by the author. Sure dragons can teleport, but not into small spaces. It’s already been stated that women’s quarters tend to be in the innermost part of a Hold, and that the Holds themselves are built of stone (indeed, usually delved into living rock, not just built.)

    So the Lords already have places where the dragons can’t get to, forcing the riders to dismount and go in on foot. The hold guards would be fighting on their home turf and in enclosed spaces where they won’t even need to see the attacking dragons.

    I agree that Holds couldn’t withstand a dragon-powered siege, but barring bad luck they should be proof against this kind of quick snatch-and-grab. There’s no way the Weyr should have been able to kidnap high-ranking women from every single place they tried it, apparently without casualties.

    Oh, and let’s not forget that F’lar is supposedly doing all this because he believes Thread is returning and the Weyr has to be as strong as possible. Yet he has no hesitation in sending riders off to attack fortified places even though the death of a rider means the death of a dragon.

    The stupid, it hurts!

  7. Silver Adept June 11, 2014 at 6:18 pm

    @ J. Random Scribbler –

    You would think so, and the Holders should, too. And then Future Knowledge happens, and it basically becomes impossible for the Holders to win against any dragonrider tactic, no matter how much they prepare.

    @ depizan –

    Ouch. The memory problems of the Holders really are an issue that doesn’t get dealt with at all.

  8. J. Random Scribbler June 11, 2014 at 7:15 pm

    @depizan: I’m still laughing about that Michael Bay snark. I’ve long believed that AM’s main goal was to provoke big emotional reactions, with the worldbuilding merely a disbelief-suspension scaffold to hang her big set-piece scenes. This was a huge problem in that club I was in, because the leadership tended to be a lot more into worldbuilding and continuity than most of the fandom was. We often had new members writing stories that made no sense or outright contradicted already-established events. It seemed like they just wanted to get their feels on, and didn’t understand why we were sending back edits instead of just posting their stories. There’s a place for that, just like there’s a place for Michael Bay movies; only we were trying not to be that place. Sorry if I ramble, that club was a huge part of my life for years.

    As for the Lords, that’s a pretty severe case of Plot-Convenient Amnesia, yeah. I can understand AM not getting much editing when she submitted the original novellas to Analog, but supposedly an editor was involved when she put together Dragonflight. Whoever that was, they really dropped the ball here. Or were standards actually that low back then?

  9. depizan June 11, 2014 at 8:48 pm

    I’m not sure the standards are any better now. A lot of stuff seems to get published without any kind of editing for sense/continuity (or even for proper use of the English language).

    I don’t really see a problem with writing for big emotional scenes (or explosions, for that matter), but the disbelief-suspension scaffold still needs to work. Though McCaffrey would lose me with the characters, anyway.

    I do find it kind of fascinating that Pern fandom (or at least your club) attracted both people who were fascinated by the general idea and worldbuilding (and built off that) and people who, er, wrote exactly like McCaffrey.

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