(by Silver Adept
Last time, there was a lot of cursing. And dragons discovered their ancestors still lived among them. But mostly cursing and decrying the systemic abuse of women on Pern.
Dragonquest, Chapter V: Content Notes: None that I can see.
Chapter V introduces another perspective to the mix – Jaxom, the Lord of Lessa’s Ruatha Hold, who should be about ten, if I recall the timeline correctly, and who has yet to be killed by Lessa as a usurper to her rightful claim. The stylistic construction of this chapter is more akin to a boys’ adventure story, like Harry Potter’s first few installments were, so the adults will be scarce, there will be no lethal danger to the boys, and the men Do and the women Mother.
Jaxom is busy making himself scarce in the corridors of Ruatha Hold, trying to get away from Lytol for a moment and being totally jealous of Felessan. Oh, and also there’s all this stuff he needs to learn about being a Lord Holder. Lytol’s call for him to get on the dragon intended to take him to Benden Weyr brings Jaxom around. Problem is, he’s already starting to sound like a person with no compassion for the “commoners”, complaining that they only sent a green, and that a brown would have been better fitting his station. (Again, there’s that whole stratification based on dragon color, which is something that a kid can’t determine for themselves. There’s a lot of predeterminism crap going on here.) Jaxom’s transformation isn’t complete, though, because he’s immediately contrite about his previous annoyance, remembering that the dragon Lytol lost was a brown (as genesistrine pointed out, this is an upgrade from the green Larth from the first book. Since Lytol is going to be an important character, he apparently retroactively gets a higher-status dragon.) and it would be an uncomfortable reminder of the accident that killed Lytol’s dragon. Jaxom forgets the honorific of draconic contraction, which is easy to see in text, but must be a bear to hear, and we get to see that Jaxom is perceptive, even when he’s not completely trained. This slots him into the “cautious, thinking boy” role in the adventure story, whose complement, Felessan, will be introduced to us shortly. Felessan is the “adventurous, overconfident boy” role, and will be the primary spur to getting Jaxom to go along with him on their intended trip.
This bit follows Jaxom and Felessan [Lessa and F’lar’s son] into their shared explorer passions. This would totally be the right time for some subtle worldbuilding, but instead we get the two tearing through the settled areas at high speed, more jealous of each other’s position (as children are wont to be) than anything. The narrative does take care to point out, though, that Jaxom is being bullied and Felessan is being ostracized, also possibly bullied, before it goes off on the adventure. I suspect those elements will return with vengeance later on. But for now, Felessan leads Jaxom on a merry trip down unused corridors with the end goal of catching a glimpse of Ramoth’s latest clutch while Ramoth is away at the lake. And then goads Jaxom into following him to go try and touch them, which ends up with Jaxom being scraped across the chest trying to squeeze through a crack that Felessan could easily go through, ruining his clothes and giving him a big obvious sign to others that he was up to something. But the reward for the pain is a very close inspection of the eggs. Jaxom touches one of them, because his thinking mode grants him the virtue of curiosity. Felessan has obvious discomfort at this, preferring the safety of tradition (Tradition!), and then both of them flee immediately at the first sign of Ramoth’s return.
Which gets them lost, because Felessan’s virtue is action, not planning. Jaxom is hurt, which lends a small bit of urgency to finding their way back. And now we get confirmation that Jaxom can be both perceptive and curious simultaneously, and the subtle worldbuilding we were missing a little while ago appears.
“I wonder what it was like,” Jaxom mused.
“Wonder what what was like?” asked Felessan with some surprise.
“When the Weyrs and the Holds were full. When these corridors were lighted and used.”
“They’ve never been used.”
“I mean, where did all the people go? And how did they carve out whole mountains in the first place?”
Clearly, the matter had never troubled Felessan.
Despite being the explorer and part of a corps of explorers, Felessan hasn’t wondered what made the places he’s exploring. It’s not his role in this adventure to exercise thought, so he doesn’t. So Jaxom takes twenty on his skill checks, realizing after some thought that he’s in an older part, which should lead them out of being lost, but instead leads them to a secret door with a pressure plate that opens the door. Which releases a “inert” gas that knocks both kids out…but also provides a light for when the rescue team comes looking. (Said “inert” gas is probably part of a fire suppression system, which would not be good to breathe at all, but again, no serious danger in an adventure story.)
This section is pretty good, stylistically, in relation to being a children’s adventure story. So it’s not all gloom and doom here, – the writing is doing well. It’s the society around that’s so awful. Sometimes, you have to keep sight of the good things. The differences between Acting and Thinking are spelled out pretty clearly, which makes it easy to follow and predict.
The next part of the chapter has us spin the clock back – same time sequence, but from Lytol, Lessa, and F’lar’s perspective. Lytol complains a bit about Jaxom running off because he’s a Lord Holder, but F’lar reminds him of his own childhood explorations and Lessa flatters him about how well Jaxom is growing and presenting himself. Lytol betrays that Mardra has pissed him off again through his poker tell (one that Jaxom has also picked up on), which irritates Lessa at Mardra, but now it’s time for a meeting between F’lar, Lessa, Masterharper Robinton, Mastersmith Fandarel, and Lytol. It’s about the premature Thread falling, and the…reluctance of other Weyrs to communicate such things to their Holders and Crafters. (Ah, and one other named Weyrwoman, Bedella, who we don’t know about regarding abuse, but who continues to be insulted as stupid). And the communication between Weyrs is also lacking, such that Benden needs an infodump to get the state of the planet.
While the backstory gets filled in, let’s take a minute to point out differences between Hold, Craft, and Weyr, in terms of orientation and important things. Lytol, as a Holder, is concerned about his lands, his people, and how Thread affects the economics of the same. He needs accurate timetables, and he needs to instill the statecraft of a noble into Jaxom, which means more structured play opportunities with Weyrlings and Crafters. Crafters need materials from Holds to make things and to have markets for their distribution, and they need Holds to stay safe. So both of them are dependent on dragonriders to keep everything clear. Which can be taken advantage of by less-than-scrupulous dragonriders. And, as the Masterharper and Lytol point out, dragonriders have been taking advantage of this, claiming tradition (TRADITIOOOOOOOON!) as the reason for squeezing the Holders and Crafters harder, including taking noble Hold women to serve as drudges for their Weyrwomen. It’s basically stirring up resentment in all the holds and crafts, which makes even Benden Weyr, which treats fairly and modernly…in comparison, anyway, suspicious to the Holders.
“The Oldtimers are not only incurably parochial, but worse – adamantly inflexible. They will not, cannot adapt to our Turn.[…]And they are alienating the Lord Holders and Craftsmen so completely that I am sincerely concerned – no, I’m scared – about the reaction to this new crisis.”
F’lar is at his “best” during the meeting, insisting that what he’s already done with signal fires should be enough. (Tradition!) Since he’s the designated holder of the Idiot Ball with regard to working within tradition (except when he’s suddenly innovative), he gets overridden by the others, Fandarel in particular. Fandarel has reinvented telegraphs, but just needs to run the wire (which he can’t, because he’s too busy making flamethrowers). Robinton has the knowledge of Morse Code (well, drum code, anyway) to go along with it. F’lar will get what he wants – a worldwide telecommunications network. That is, assuming all the cables can be run. The narrative provides, even here. That said, if Thread eats what it contacts, they’re going to have to bury the cables, aren’t they? That’s going to be a very time-consuming project…and the sweepers will have to be extra careful around those lines. Hmm.
Back to the meeting. Everyone pushes F’lar back into the leadership role to save the planet. Because he’s done it once before, and, frankly, because he’s the best figurehead anyone could ask for, Idiot Ball included. Thus, the narrative will give F’lar everything again, but this time it is at least pointing out that it’s by someone else’s choices and machinations. This is improvement.
So now it’s time to go look for Jaxom and Felessan and see what they discovered. After zeroing in on their most likely target (the egg clutch peephole, which F’lar knows about, Manora knows about, Lytol knows about, but Lessa apparently doesn’t, which gives the whole affair a distinctly peep-show quality to it, as dragon eggs have apparently substituted for staring in the windows of the Girl Next Door), the adults systematically search, find the two kids and their prize room, which gives the Mastersmith ideas about new techniques to be researched and Lessa and F’lar a new puzzle to work out with the strange combinations of rods and balls, arranged in ladder-like structures painted onto the walls. My guess is that they have a distinctly helical pattern to them and would tell a lot about how the fire-lizards became the dragons. But since there are no geneticists on Pern, the audience must be content with knowing what has been spotted and enjoy the Mastersmith’s discovery of a microscope, which will no doubt give he Masterglasssmith plenty of new knowledge to try and replicate. F’lar breaches the idea brought on by having a magnification lens to work with – if you can build a microscope, you can build a telescope. And once you can see where you’re going, you can send a dragon there.
This is not odd, since F’lar also thought of the idea of going to the Red Star at the end of Dragonflight, but it is odd that F’lar, who floats between innovative and traditional, is the only person on Pern confirmed to be thinking about this idea through two books so far. Now that he’s said it aloud in the presence of others, the universe can assert itself and put Lessa’s brain (and Robinton and Fandarel) to work on it so they can figure it all out in time for F’lar to grab the glory.
The chapter finishes with Jaxom waking up, realizing he’s safe, worrying he’s going to get in trouble, and then politely gathering information about his and Felessan’s discovery. (His age is also, apparently, almost twelve. Must have miscounted. Or there’s an unmentioned temporal paradox where two years of existence were compressed into something else.) The boys have discovered rooms from ancient times, which has apparently erased the trouble they were going to get in. And thus, our mini-adventure tale comes to its close, with an adventure had and no serious consequences. Next time, we return to our fantasy novel. And likely, the cursing.