Dragonquest (The Dragonriders of Pern, #2) – Begin at the Beginning

(by Silver Adept

Welcome back, everyone! Our chronology continues with Dragonquest, the second book of the Dragonriders of Pern series. This book opens with a similar Prelude as Dragonflight, with spoilery, scientific data about Pern and the Thread menace, which will be skipped (again) except for the last few bits of data, that says seven Turns have passed since the end of Dragonflight, and the dragons and riders who have come forward from the ancient past are not adjusting well to the new times. This is also the first plotted-novel work in the series, so we can hope that there will be better cohesion and less of things falling into the main character’s laps with a token amount of effort.

Dragonquest: Chapter I: Content Notes: Sexism, misogyny, rape culture, possibly ableism.

The narrative proper opens with Masterharper Robinton trying to compose a song about Lessa’s cross-time adventures, and before I even escape the first page, I’m almost ready to shout “Fuck this, there’s nobody who isn’t going to use abusive metaphor, so why bother?”

He fancied the sand begged to be violated with words and notes…

Really? Inanimate objects being referred to in assault and rape language right at the beginning? Argh.

Robinton has heard ugly rumors that Fort Hold and Fort Weyr are having a falling-out, with Fort Weyr’s Weyrleader, T’ron (from the past) sleeping around with Hold girls and the Weyrwoman, Madra (also of the past), in his opinion, hanging on to her post instead of retiring. From Dragonflight, though, we learned that Weyr culture provides very few opportunities for women to exercise power, so it’s understandable that Madra would not want to just step down from the post.

Since it’s been three years since Dragonflight was published, we also get Robinton’s perspective on how both F’lar and Lessa look and act.

Unconsciously the Harper smiled as he pictured the dainty, child-size Weyrwoman, with her white skin, her cloud of dark hair, the flash of her grey eyes, heard the acerbity of her clever tongue. No man of Pern failed of respect for her, or braved her displeasure, with the exception of F’lar.
Benden’s Weyrleader, with his keen amber eyes, his unconscious superiority, the intense energy of his lean fighter’s frame.

So we’re clear, then? Lessa is small, delicate, and armed with soft-power weapons, like an acid tongue. People respect her because she can make life hell for anyone who crosses her, but if it ever came to a physical confrontation, Lessa would always be, well, lesser. Which means Lessa has power only because the men let her, or because she’s backed by F’lar, who is the hard power of the relationship, with his fighter’s frame.

Also, “unconscious superiority” bit? Bullshit. F’lar, as Dragonflight pointed out to us, had no scruples at all about pushing advantages, making others feel small, or resorting to outright abuse to get his way. It’s deliberately cultivated, nothing unconscious about it, except that F’lar does it without thinking about it now.

Members of the supporting cast are also introduced.

[…]Fandarel, the Mastersmith, with his endless curiosity, the great hands with their delicate skill, the ranging mind with its eternal quest for efficiency. Somehow one expected such an immense man to be as slow of wit as he was deliberate of physical movement.
Lytol who had once ridden a Benden dragon and lost his Larth in an accident in the Spring Games…he had been Crafthall Master in High Reaches Hold when F’lar had discovered Lessa…F’lar had appointed Lytol to be Lord Warder of Ruatha Hold when Lessa had abdicated her claim to the Hold to young Jaxom.

So the Mastersmith looks like the big dumb guy perfectly suited to the stereotype of a manual laborer, although we can read it charitably to suggest that Robinton knows full well that the appearance is highly deceiving, since he’s been able to see the work Fandarel can turn out on a regular basis. Back in Dragonflight, though, Fandarel spoke in extremely clipped patterns, made out to sound like he isn’t all that smart outside of his specialization. I’m hoping at some point, everyone gets floored by how brilliant Fandarel really is, and that his apparent slowness is something adopted so that he doesn’t have to spend so much time with clueless -ists admiring how educated and articulate such a big man is. Something preferably in the style of Alice Cooper backstage in Wayne’s World, while I’m imagining things that aren’t going to happen.

Lytol gets a big revisionist bit – perhaps Robinton doesn’t know the full story of Lessa’s revenge, but making the claim that F’lar appointed Lytol after Lessa abdicated subtly massages the part where F’lar legitimized Jaxom, and by extension Lytol, by ignoring Lessa’s superior claim in favor of a one-off by Fax that was never meant to be serious. Because she was a woman, and women can’t have actual power ever. What power they can have must drive from a man, even though there’s been reference to a piece of lore about a woman who does audacious and cool things. So there’s precedent.

We skip away to F’nor, F’lar’s half-brother (the practical one who thought to check and see whether Jaxom existed when Lessa was getting revenge, instead of just getting straight into a duel to the death with Fax, as F’lar had) and his dragon, Canth, musing on the tension between the Oldtimers’ (interesting choice of name, there, as if the narrative wasn’t sure that we understood who’s in the right and who isn’t) Weyrs and their areas of protection – it’s deliciously telling to have F’nor talk about, on one paragraph, how F’lar was the only one who believed in tradition (Traditioooooon!) to keep his Weyr ready for the now-inevitable return of Thread, and in another paragraph, to criticize the Weyrleader of Fort Weyr, T’ron (time-skipped) for being far too wrapped up in tradition (TRADITIOOOOOOOON!) to produce large dragon clutches, or, for that matter, to maintain a good working relationship with the people in his protection area.

F’nor’s modern sensibilities are informed by a time where the Weyrs were considered unnecessary and a drain on resources, fighting against an enemy that hadn’t shown itself for generations. For the time-skipped group, they just got done fighting Thread and have now been pulled forward in time to fight it again – there’s no adjustment to the new age there, and so they continue to act as they would normally. Which is basically a protection racket. “Nice Hold and fields you have there. Be a real shame if Thread got to it. But if you purchase our product with your tithes, send us your women and men when we need them, and make sure that you understand who the real bosses are around here, I think that will get on just fine. If not, well, you can try to catch all the burrows with your flamethrowers and chemicals, but we both know how that will turn out.” The dragons and their riders are expecting deference that they haven’t earned yet, and have not yet arrived at the reality that even if you are running the neighborhood, you still have to have your legitimate businessmen and a cordial relationship (if not outright corruption and control of) with the other powers, so that nobody gets it in their head to mount a rebellion and that all such exercises, if undertaken, result in the offending leader wearing cement shoes in the middle of a Threadfall.

So F’nor agrees with F’lar’s remarkable pragmatism and forward-looking stance in running Benden in contrast to the time-skipped riders doing what has been working for them for quite some time, without anyone having thought to bring them up to speed on their history in the seven Turns’ time since they arrived. And, for their part, the time-skipped riders seem to be immune to the proof that Benden Weyr offers, by existing and by its data regarding clutch sizes, queen eggs produced, accidents at Impressions and so forth, that making practical changes to the tradition (traditiooooooon!) has better results. This is shaping up to be an Idiot Ball plot, which does not bode well for anyone.

F’nor also makes a mention of something the narrative has glossed over to this point, though the first book, and does so in the context of justifying using older boys’ increased emotional maturity and sound judgment as reasons for choosing them as candidates for newly-hatched dragons.

Even an older beast [dragon] lived for the here and now, with little thought for the future and not all that much recollection – except on an instinctive level – for the past. That was just as well, F’nor thought. For dragons bore the brunt of Thread-score. Perhaps if their memories were more acute or associative, they might refuse to fight.

They might refuse to fight. The beings with which dragon riders share such a complete connection with, thank Prime they forget the past so easily, and that they don’t dwell too much in philosophy or ethics, or they might understand that they are being used as living weapons and expected to fight and die so that other humans, often unappreciative and resentful of them, might live and prosper. Thank Prime they don’t peek into their riders’ memories, or that the dragons don’t have a gestalt consciousness, or any one of a hundred things that they could do which would lay bare to them the reality of what they are doing and the likelihood that they will die fighting this war. Thank Prime the tools don’t think past instinct, or this would be The Dragons of Pern. Because it’s totally possible to keep thinking, feeling beings in a second-class state forever without problems, so long as you take care of their basic needs in the process.
Back to the plot. F’nor heads into the Lower Caverns, where the process of making an ointment that numbs the burn of Thread is well underway, and it stinks. Non-metaphorically, that is. Lessa, Manora (F’nor’s mother and chief steward of the Weyr) and Brekke, from the Southern Weyr (Kylara’s Weyr, also serving as convalescence and hospital to dragonriders), are all worried about cracked pots that are leaking a contaminant into their salve, and they need someone to go ask Fandarel about the pots’ construction to see if the addition will be harmless or problematic when applied to an open wound. F’nor kind of likes Brekke, but mostly because she’s a quiet, timid girl with “self-effacing modesty”. So she doesn’t take credit, won’t speak up, and will likely be obedient to her man. Gee, I wonder why he likes her for that.

Anyway, F’nor agrees to see Fandarel to get away from the odor, is the mouthpiece for the narrative telling us that F’lar and Lessa are well-matched, that Lessa has had a child with F’lar, Felessan (naming conventions say children are named after their parents), muses more about how Benden is becoming a hotspot of feminism, because it doesn’t expect all its women to be constantly cranking out babies, has some chow, and hops over to see the Mastersmith, whose latest idea of putting wheels on the river barges has made transporting or from the mines significantly more efficient (no unloading needed, just haul the barges out and run them on land).

Before he can get there, however, he runs into two riders from Fort who are on an extortion run, fancying a jeweled belt knife intended for a wedding at a Hold for themselves instead of its intended recipient. Their rudeness rubs F’nor the wrong way, and for his troubles, and in attempting to prevent the shakedown, he gets stabbed in the shoulder, all the way to the bone. To end the chapter, F’nor passes out.

Before we move on, though, I’m going to mention that one of the two dragonriders from Fort is a green rider. And a guy. And helps cement the idea that the only dragons women will ride are queen dragons. Which means much of what was commented on in Dragonflight about choices determining character has a whole extra set of potential Unfortunate Implications tacked on. In their favor, there’s been nothing explicitly said about male-male relationships, positive or negative, to this point, so it’s quite possible green riders can relieve their stresses in whatever way works. Apparently, this rider is quite irritable because his dragon wants to mate with another, he’s suppressing that urge, and this drives his angry actions and his short temper. There’s a tangle in here about how promiscuity in men seems to be okay on Pern, too, so one would think there’s enough ability for a green rider to stay happy… unless they’re only supposed to mate with other riders, at which point things get interesting. Maybe if the narrative provides us some perspective, we’ll be able to untangle things.

12 thoughts on “Dragonquest (The Dragonriders of Pern, #2) – Begin at the Beginning

  1. depizan July 17, 2014 at 12:41 pm

    Inanimate objects being referred to in assault and rape language right at the beginning?

    It’s worse than that. He’s not just thinking about the sand in creepy terms, he’s thinking it WANTS it. That’s like a double whammy of do not want that suggests (probably without the author’s intent) horrible things about the guy.

    T’ron (from the past) sleeping around with Hold girls

    Um, I seem to remember it being implied more than once in the previous book that that was normal. Or at least not ABnormal. I guess it’s different if it’s some dude from the past. Or the world building changed between books.

    Speaking of apparent world building changes…

    It is very hard to be all “Oh noez!” over the time displaced Weyrs leaning on their holders ala the mob when out “heroes” exerted control over their holders through kidnaping and quasi-military might. Or are we supposed to forget about that?

    I’m having a lot of trouble with the dragon memory revelation (besides that, once again, we’re reminded that the “heroes” are kind of terrible). Doesn’t the whole between business require the dragons to have memories? Wouldn’t the only way for dragons to lack associative memories be for their designers to have removed that ability? Given that Thread would destroy all life on the planet, couldn’t they just explain to the dragons that it’s basically fight or die for humans as well as dragons? You know, if the humans of Pern didn’t mostly default to asshat.

    Is Fort extorting people in the protection area of Bendan Weyr? *trying to make sense of F’nor’s encounter with the Fort dragon riders*

  2. Silver Adept July 17, 2014 at 11:08 pm

    @ depizan –

    Robinton zigzags a lot between “possibly decent human being” and “would make F’lar look saintly”, with each encounter not really resolving in one direction or the other. But yes, thanks for catching the extra “it wanted it” Wrong with that construction.

    The disapproval of the other Weyrs has a lot to do with Protagonist-Centered Morality. When F’lar does it, it’s to get the world ready for the ancient threat that he’s sure is coming. When the others do it, it’s just to line their own pockets. That reminds me, I need to edit in that the jeweled knife that causes the stabbing is promised to someone for a wedding, so it’s not just a shakedown, it’s taking someone else’s stuff.

    The geography of Crafthalls works like this: Crafthalls are attached to Holds and produce goods under the protection of the Lord Holder, who in turn falls within the protective area of a Weyr. The Smithcrafthall is attached to Fort Hold, which is under the jurisdiction of Fort Weyr, currently under the direction of T’ron. F’nor is out of his jurisdiction, technically. But the greater sin assessed is that of the green rider being anywhere around people when the green wants to mate. It’s apparently a dragon thing to get very cranky about that time. And psychic bond means the person does, too.

    As for the dragons and their temporal selves, I have trouble visualizings how they exist without much in the way of memories, so… I got nothing.

  3. depizan July 18, 2014 at 8:11 pm

    I don’t recall anything about horny dragons being cranky in the first book, but clearly there have been revisions to the world building. *sigh*

    On the one hand, lots of fictional worlds get revised as their authors think them through in greater detail. On the other hand, all of these revisions so far seem to make things more disturbing and problematic, not less. (And do nothing to improve the logic of the fictional world and its denizens.) I don’t know that that’s so usual.

  4. Silver Adept July 19, 2014 at 1:45 pm

    That’s definitely not usual that the changes seem to be making it all worse. But Pern is generally a unique sort of place in its awful. By the time we’re finished with this book, there will be plenty of people choosing the worst solutions to fixing other people’s problems, thinking of them as the correct solutions (and supported by narrative gymnastics that would make Dominique Dawes look amateurish).

    A good rule of thumb I’ve figured out so far is that empathy is Pern’s scarcest resource.

  5. boutet July 20, 2014 at 10:12 pm

    Hey, I don’t have anything useful to contribute. Just wanted to say that I’m really enjoying reading these. Looking forward to more! 😀

  6. Sybylla18 July 20, 2014 at 11:35 pm

    I found these deconstructions tonight, and I’ve been enjoying them, so I wanted to thank you for writing them. I was a huge Pern fan as a tween, and I reread them enough then that I am still, sadly, able to recall long passages with very little effort. Hoo boy. I could label some things as I’m-not-sure-I’m-comfortable-with-this way back then, but I wasn’t able to pick up on just how problematic the worldbuilding and characterization really are. (Nearly 30 years of perspective will make a difference, I guess.)

  7. Silver Adept July 22, 2014 at 12:57 am

    @ boutet – There’s always something useful about saying you’re reading and enjoying.

    @ Sybylla18 – Perspective does make things harsher or worse in hindsight. Looking forward to more from you.

  8. J. Random Scribbler July 23, 2014 at 10:04 pm

    OK, I’m going to get a little pedantic here, but the whole Hold/Crafthall/Weyr geography thing is confusing and bears a little more explanation.

    One of the more confusing aspects is that the name of a major Hold, like Fort, sometimes refers to the entire territory, and sometimes just to the fortified settlement (probably the closest thing Pern has to an actual city) that is the “capital” of said territory.

    The Smithcrafthall isn’t attached to Fort Hold, but instead is an autonomous enclave within the territory of Telgar Hold. Every craft is centered on a complex like this; e.g. the Harpercrafthall is immediately under the walls of Fort Hold itself, the Weavercrafthall is located in a cotton-growing region south of Fort, and the Winecrafthall is in a grape-growing region within Benden Hold’s territory.

    Within each craft, there are also smaller crafthalls that are attached to Holds; for example, Lytol was head of the weaverhall at High Reaches Hold, and many of the major holds may have weavercrafthalls of their own, all distinct from *the* Weavercrafthall and under it’s jurisdiction (mostly.) As another example, there presumably is a smithcrafthall at Fort Hold (and every other major hold), but it is not *the* Smithcrafthall. Confused yet?

    Further complicating the picture are minor holds, which are smaller settlements governed by a Holder, who answers to the Lord Holder of whichever major Hold contains their minor hold. We’ll see more of these in later books.

    So anyway, the confrontation between F’nor and the Fort riders occurs outside either of their Weyrs’ jurisdictions, which may be AM’s way of making the Fort riders even more in the wrong for trying to take the knife.

    As for the whole male greenriders and mating flights thing, that’s never fully spelled out. There is more about it later, though, so I won’t go into my take on it now.

    Finally, yeah, these books are way more problematic than I noticed even five years ago, let alone when I was a kid. Kinda scary, that.

  9. Silver Adept July 24, 2014 at 7:53 am

    Thanks for the correction. I got it in my head somehow that *the* Smithcrafthall was attached to Fort Hold.

    The way the Holds and Holders work really does resemble the system of fiefdoms and vassalage – in exchange for land and protection, the minor Holders swear fealty to the major ones. At least Pern appears to have skipped the part of Terra’s history where the Holders would engage in yearly military campaigns against each other. Perhaps because those stupid enough to do so during possible Threadfall were all destroyed by the alien menace.

    The “autonomous entities attached to Holds” idea, though, makes much less sense unless you’ve read the later books that talk about the governing philosophy of the colonists – in the world that we’ve described so far, Crafts would be obligated to Weyrs and/or Holds for protection – they might pay their obligations in goods rather than military service, but someone would be exacting taxation from them and thinking of them possessively. I think it’s only obliquely referenced, though, when dragonriders are talking about the placement of new Crafthalls.

  10. Firedrake July 25, 2014 at 5:23 am

    I’m seeing an odd correlation with RTCdom here, in a way that doesn’t quite work.

    To an RTC, the whole eternal conscious torture thing is so very much worse than anything else that all sorts of deception and force are justified in trying to get people out of it. That’s not a nice position to be in, but it’s a logical consequence of the worldview.

    To these dragonriders, one Thread that gets through is going to eat the whole damn planet (at least in the original text, though it seems to have been moderated later). And yet they’re prepared not to fight. What are they going to eat when they’re sitting on their stone islands in a sea of Thread?

  11. Silver Adept July 25, 2014 at 1:03 pm

    Fish, most likely. Although it hasn’t been canonically established yet that Thread drowns in Pern waters, marine life is safe from Thread if it stays under water. It wouldn’t necessarily be a varied diet, but it would be possible. Plus, having a mobile TARDIS would make it trivial to hop back to a pre-disaster time and take whatever they wanted.

    Not that the riders would let it get to that – after one Threadfall without dragons somewhere, they expect everyone else to fall in line and join up so as to avoid suffering the same fate, much like the RTCs are due everyone becomes a Christian after the first Rapture/Tribulation combination.

  12. Pebblerocker July 30, 2014 at 2:15 am

    Okay, how is life so great for women in the Weyrs as compared to the Holds? It’s a crapsack existence for Hold women, exhausted by being kept in a state of constant pregnancy (should we assume that Fax’s treatment of Gemma was incidental to his evil, if hers was the normal lot in life?) but how is life as a Lower Caverns woman any better? Dragonriding women have the option of abortion by trips between in early pregnancy; no other method of contraception is mentioned as far as I’ve seen, and dragonriders do have a philosophy of helping themselves to what they believe they deserve. It seems entirely in keeping with the tone of the books to assume that what they deserve includes the body of any Weyr kitchen worker, consent optional.

    I note that F’nor approves of the stated greater freedoms enjoyed by weyrfolk women because not being worn out in childbirth means they stay hotter-looking for longer. F’nor, you’re so much nicer than your brother!

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