Last time, we got to see a very small smidgen of the untouchable class known as the Shunned, through the lens and perspective of someone incredibly privileged and trying to find out, in genuine concern, how conditions are for them. This did not result in any sort of calls for the entire system to be dismantled, but it did result in the fridging of Zist’s wife and infant daughter to the plague that was running rampant through the Shunned group they encountered. So now, Zist and his mute adopted son, Pellar, are on their way to Camp Natalon, where they will start with the events of the first book. Pellar, of course, won’t be going into the camp, but instead doing what he does best camping on the outside.
Dragon’s Fire: Book One: Chapters 2 and 3: Content Notes: Ablism, child abuse, threats of child sexual abuse
This chapter starts at Crom Hold, 492.4, for the All-Weyr Games, and provides us a further snippet of the song started in Chapter 1:
Flame on high,
Thread will die.
Flame too low,
Before we get into the action, might I note that the existence of the “All-Weyr Games” sounds like something that should have carried through all the way to the Ninth, or been temporarily suspended when there was only one weyr to have, because it seems like a much more fruitful way of causing accidents among riders than the “training exercises” mentioned in earlier books. Like how it eventually turned out that Larth got lost – demonstrations and horsing around rather than drill accidents. Also, that piece by itself has some rather interesting implications for the ways that Weyrs don’t really like talking to each other or working with each other in later chronologies.
The chapter begins with Cristov, Tarik’s son, although much younger than in the previous book, trying to help his friend, Jamal, get to a viewing space fairly quickly. The delay is because Jamal is on crutches, having broken his leg not too long ago. After a certain amount of trying to offer help (which Jamal wisely refuses as hlep due to Cristov suggesting things like he could carry Jamal), Tarik beckons Cristov, and Jamal disappears into the crowd before Cristov can show off that he’s made a friend to Tarik. Tarik demonstrates why this would have been counterproductive.
“Never mind him,” Tarik growled impatiently. “You’ll make new friends up at the Camp, you needn’t worry about that cripple.”
“He’ll be fine when the cast’s off,” Cristov protested. For all the ten Turns that Cristov had lived, his father had found fault with anyone that Cristov had tried to befriend.
“That’s neither here nor there,” Tarik grunted. “He’s a cripple now and I’m glad you won’t be around him.” He snaked a hand around Cristov and pulled him tight against him.
“This is Harper Moran,” Tarik said, gesturing to the man in blue beside him. Cristov nodded politely to the harper.
I realize that Tarik is a Designated Villain, but he’s doing his level best to be a stereotype of an abuser to everyone he knows, including his family. If he’s like this, then I have to wonder how in the first place he was accepted to Camp Natalon. There isn’t any sort of redeeming anything about him that makes it likely that he would be accepted anywhere. We don’t have to lay it on this thickly to convince the audience that he’s a villain, really.
Utterly unrelated to Tarik the abuser, what’s Zist’s supposedly lost apprentice doing here? He supposedly was going to live among the Shunned, he got lost, and we’re supposed to believe that he pops back up nine Turns later and nobody seems interested at all that he’s alive and well and spectating at the All-Weyr Games? What happened in the interim?
Additionally, according to Moran, Igen Weyr’s been abandoned recently, due to a drought in their area and the death of the last queen dragon, so the new Weyrleader of Telgar is the old Weyrleader of Igen. There seems to be a bit of a running theme in these books of people ending up in positions of power after they’ve had an issue running their own spaces.
Tarik continues to hold the Villain Ball, the Asshole Ball, and the Fool Ball together as tightly as he can. When Moran mentions firestone, Cristov asks if it’s a type of coal, on the reasoning that:
Tarik restrains himself from beating his child for his ignorance, but Moran compliments his logic and thinking skills as suitable for a Harper. At which point, Tarik says that Cristov’s not going to be a Harper. Moran is ready for that argument as well.
“I imagine thinking will be important for miners, Tarik,” Moran said, shaking his head in disagreement. “Times are changing. The old mines have played out; the new seams are all deep underground. Mining down there will require new ways of thinking.”
“Not for me,” Tarik disagreed. “I know all I need to know about mining. I’ve been a miner for twenty Turns now–learned from my father and he’d been a miner for thirty Turns. It was his father that first opened our seam, seventy Turns back.”
And here I thought I wasn’t going to get an opportunity to use that again.
But also, if this is past the point in which Tarik has already lost his own mine and is headed to Natalon’s, then he’s been empirically proven wrong about knowing everything he needs to.
There’s also some nice weaving-in of the backstory, using the demonstrations of the dragons as food for thought about Thread and the upcoming reality that the real thing will be falling soon. (And a lot of infodumping, too, but there’s at least some skill on display in making the infodump seem natural, before doing a small bit of the prologue that we had from the last book about the need for good steel, and it mentions that Natalon invited Tarik to his camp when he heard Tarik was looking for work.
Then we’re introduced to Tenim, who is attempting a crash-into-pickpocket attempt on a wealthy trader. Tenim manages to get the purse, but the Trader pats himself down fairly soon after getting up, and Tenim has to turn his act of thievery into an act of heroism, as if he were picking the purse up to give it back. This works, and Tenim gets a half-mark piece for his “honesty.” But it’s apparently not enough.
Out of sight, Tenim allowed himself one long, explosive curse. His belly rumbled in agreement.
No matter what Moran said, he was too old to beg. It was time to steal.
In the evening there was gambling; Tenim decided to risk his half-mark on the chance for more.
If he didn’t, there were always those too deep in their cups to notice his light fingers late at night.
And again with the connections to Moran. Who might or might not know about the thievery of this person. The narrative switches to Moran, who is working a crowd of gamblers, several of whom he suspects are allies trying to take advantage of him.
Privately, the harper was pretty certain that only half of the current crowd was working with Berrin, the rest being innocent but greedy gamblers hoping to exploit Berrin and the harper. Moran was quite certain that in the end he would take money from both groups and come out ahead. He had no qualms with that–there were hungry children at their camp who wouldn’t question how their bellies came to be full.
There’s a quick cut to Jamal (with the broken leg) and his sister, Halla, where Halla remarks that Jamal’s leg is beginning to smell and suggests a healer. Jamal says, “Healers won’t see us, you know that,” and then goes off again after telling Halla she’s supposed to be looking after the other children. She’s eight, by the way. Which is depressingly common in fantasy kingdoms and large families alike. That smell is, I suspect, is a very bad thing for Jamal, and that he can’t access health care tells me he’s probably the child of Shunned parents, and here we are in a world where even though they’re not marked themselves, the children of the Shunned are pretty clearly expected to just die along with their parents, problem solved. It seems like the new author has managed to convince the older one that looking through the lenses of the commoners is worthwhile for storytelling, and is doing their best to try and shine light on what was, until now, just implication or something beneath the nobility.
The chapter ends with the results of Moran’s betting. As expected, he cleaned house sufficiently that he’s willing to redistribute some quarter-marks to his marks so that the gamblers feel like he’s being fair, before returning to…Tarik…and they talk cryptic business.
“You’ve some marks for me, I believe?”
“Indeed I do,” Moran declared jovially, handing over a two-mark piece that he’d just won as part of his other wagers. He leaned closer to Tarik and said in a softer voice, “And I hope you’ll find our other arrangement as advantageous.”
Tarik’s face hardened for just a moment before he responded, “I’m sure I will. Indeed, I’m sure of it.”
Well, I’m pretty sure this isn’t the first time that a Harper wagering has turned out well, and also reasonably sure this isn’t the first time a Harper has profited against those looking to get him to play a rigged game by rigging the game to his own advantage first and/or better. So, what is the arrangement between Moran and Tarik? And how many children are we talking about here, if they need a herder and several of the older ones are looking to beg or steal what they need to survive?
Maybe Chapter 3 has answers. But first, a new rhyme and a new time. Near Camp Natalon, 492.7-493.4 (so nearly a full Turn) and this:
Work and living drays do roll,
Taking every long day’s toll.
Bearing goods and bringing gifts–
Traders working every shift.
Chapter 3, instead, focuses on how Pellar got to the area around Camp Natalon and who he met. The first sign of something is Pellar noticing a suspicious spot on the ground, which turns out to be a bundle of yellow flowers…on top of “a grave, newly dug–and it was too small for an adult.” Pellar’s further investigation shows that the person who likely brought the flowers is wearing crude sandals made of bark. He can find the trail left by the cold, but Pellar notices that the child has been trying very hard to erase their tracks. He suspects the child is part of a Shunned grouping somewhere nearby. The narrative then cuts to Pellar making his report to Zist at his cottage. Which he has done by writing it all out beforehand on his slate. Pellar also remarks that there are a lot of children, and they’re being used for lookouts for another group that’s stealing coal from the mine, because they’re small and cute and not likely to arouse suspicion if they play up being lost. Zist, for his part, recounts the wedding of Silstra and Dask’s flying overhead during the ceremony, mentions the obvious tension between Tarik and Natalon, and talks about how Kaylek and Kindan aren’t necessarily getting along.
Great. At least part of this book is going to be the events of the previous book, but from a different perspective. I’d like to believe it was because the fans of the time were unhappy with the way things were going and decided to write an entire fleet of fix-it fic to take care of that, but it’s probably something much more mundane, like the realization of all the plot threads that didn’t get picked up and holes that needed patching from the last book. Or maybe they thought Nuella needed more screen time.
As it is, Pellar is finishing up with Zist when his fire lizard returns to him and says someone found his campsite. Pellar finds someone has rifled his things and left him flowers. Later on, he’ll find that the bark sandals child took his good shoelaces and left the twine they were using in exchange. He assumes the flower child is a girl, but there’s no actual confirmation of this, even as it leads Pellar into fantasy imagining about what it might be one to be that sensitive girl in a crowd of rough Shunned.
Master Zist has told him about the burned-out Shunned wagon that he’d found on his ill-fated sojourn with Cayla and Carissa, and that tale, along with so many others regarding the Shunned, left Pellar certain that at least some of them would think nothing of killing him for his belongings–or even just out of simple spite.
Pellar clenched his jaw as he thought of the little flower girl in the company of such rough men. His thoughts grew darker and he found himself thinking about Moran, Zist’s lost apprentice, imagining him tortured and worse after being unmasked by the Shunned.
There’s a certain amount of active imagination that I want to accord to still being young, but not in any sort of way that would excuse the actual contents of those thoughts, because although nobody seems to have reported this fact back to the Harpers, and they didn’t seem to have anyone else present at the Games, Moran is alive and being visible!
More disturbingly, though, Pellar is making prejudicial assumptions about the Shunned, based on the stories he heard about them (which seem very inclined to talk about how dangerous and lawless the Shunned are, propping up the not-really-proven picture Pellar is drawing on) and his assumption that there’s a sweet, innocent girl in there looking to be rescued. Neither of these assumptions has actually been borne out, nor has anyone done any sort of in-depth study about the Shunned and their reasons for doing what they are doing. We’re still careening along on the assumption that the Shunned are generally vicious people who deserve what they’ve gotten without there being any actual proof of that.
The narrative goes along with Pellar, thankfully summarizing the daily routine and his observations of the people stealing the coal at night, as well as an abbreviated version of the coal mine disaster that killed Danil, Dask, and others. Pellar notices again that flowers are adorning the graves before he encounters Nuella, who notices him, thinks of him as a threat, since he’s an outsider, and arms herself with a rock against him. She also threatens to sic Zist on the task of finding him, based on his legendary temper and tenacity. Pellar fully reports all of this, and Zist, to avoid having two apprentices (which is apparently uncommon in the Harper Hall), decides to conditionally field promote Pellar to journeyman so that he can take on Kindan. And also to tell him to go back to the Hall before the winter arrives, because Zist doesn’t want Pellar freezing to death.
Time continues to pass and we learn about how Pellar has been setting traps for meat away from the Camp’s hunting grounds until the plot-relevant kicks in and out turns out there’s a person that stepped into his animal trap.
It was a little girl, no more than nine Turns old. She was staring back at him, her brown eyes locked intently on him as she hung upside down, one foot caught in the loop of his rope snare. One hand feebly held her tunic up to protect her from the cold wind but it flopped down enough on the other side that he could see her bulging belly and bare ribs; her legs were little more than sticks.
[…Pellar observes she’s probably Shunned before hiding again because other children are coming to her…]
“Halla!” one of the younger ones called as they caught sight of her. “What are you doing up there?”
“Don’t ask silly questions,” the little girl snapped back, “just get me down.”
“I don’t know why,” the teenager repliedm”You got yourself caught, you should get yourself down.”
In that instant, Pellar decided he hated the young man. It wasn’t just his words, or his tone, it was the youth’s body language: Pellar knew that this teen would have no compunction, nor feel any guilt, about leaving the little girl stuck in the trap to die.
“Tenim, get me down,” Halla commanded, her irritation tinged with just the slightest bit of fear.
He does, eventually, after Halla’s appeal that Moran will know falls through, by using the trained hawk/falcon that he has, (calling Grief, the bird, the best tracker they have) to cut the rope holding Halla up. With Halla screaming in terror the entire time Grief is diving toward her.
She was up again in an instant, her arms in a fighting stance.
“Thanks for nothing Tenim,” she snarled, racing up to him. But she recoiled as Grief dropped again from the sky, screeching in her face.
“You owe me, Halla,” Tenim told her, a cold smile on his face. The smile changed to a leer as he added, “When the time comes, I’ll collect.”
The color drained from Halla’s face as his words registered. She regained her composure, saying, “If you’re still alive.”
I was going to make a pithy comment about how the new author seems to be following in the path of the old author that all the villains have to be irredeemably Always Evil, that sociopathy isn’t that common, to my knowledge, in most societies (but that Pern could be an exception, being Rand’s paradise), and that Pellar’s instant hate is the narrative is trying to give Pellar information and pass it off as super observation skills, but then Tenim threatened an eight year old child with rape (or something similar, since he’s leering at her) and I’m more than ready for Halla to knife him in his sleep and be done with it. Or shove him off a cliff. Or whatever intentional “accident” can befall him, and quickly.
The narrative is also essentially saying the stories about the Shunned are all true, and they are (or most of them are) the monsters they’ve been portrayed as. This is a bad idea.
Pellar, however, wants to know why Halla didn’t rat him out to Tenim, and Zist wants to be sure he heard the name Moran right, before dismissing the possibility it might be him unless they see him, despite the narrative telling us Zist came this way in the deliberate hope that he might learn more about Moran. His skepticism is not balanced by optimism. And, hearing this, Zist wants even more to send Pellar away.
Pellar prevails, and goes to scout a more accurate number and placement for the camp, but he’s almost discovered by Tarik and Tenim discussing their business agreement. Which is mostly “Tarik helps Tenim steal coal so it can be sold at a profit for Tarik.” Tarik claims he’s doing it so that Cristov can have enough money, but I tm his real reason comes out not a paragraph later.
“All I want is a place of my own and a chance to rest at the end of my days, not always slaving away for someone,” Tarik protested. “I’ve earned it. I would have had it, too, if it hadn’t been for you and the Shunned.”
“Well, you don’t have to worry about them,” Tenim said. “And I said I’d take care of you.”
The sort of thing that “socialist” programs like Social Security were created for. Or retirement accounts, if you like. Rather than having to work until you die.
I also want to know how far out this idea was planned, such that the first book in the series could be used to never directly accuse Tarik of the sabotage and problems Kindan experienced. But, on the other hand, Kindan wouldn’t have known any of this, and so he would likely have been ready to throw accusations as soon as he got something that looked like proof. So it still doesn’t work like we want it to.
The last part of the conversation Pellar hears clues is in that the Shunned are not the ones buying the coal. Which makes sense, because the Shunned presumably don’t have money to buy it with.
There’s a short interlude with Zist about Kindan and Tarik and what to do next before going back out into the cold for another overheard conversation that gives us the context of how Tarik’s mine collapsed and he has to go to Natalon’s.
“He’ll figure out that someone’s stealing coal, that’s what,” Tarik growled back.
“Only if he finds out you’ve been mining the pillars,” Tenim observed. “Otherwise he’ll think he’s only got the coal you and the shift leaders have reported mining.”
“It was easier when it was my own mine I was stealing from,” Tarik muttered darkly.
And there’s another reminder that Tarik is a greedy man, who embezzled from his own mine for his own profits. If he’s supposed to be the sympathetic victim of Tenim’s cold-blooded blackmail, the authors are failing extremely hard at it.
Also, as I recall from the first book, Kindan said that mining the pillars is a terrible idea, and one prone to causing structural instability in the place where you are mining, which is why you usually do it last when you’re closing down a mine. Or when you’re truly desperate. So Tarik is courting disaster.
“You still would be had it if it hadn’t been for the accident that collapsed the roof,” Tenim replied.
“Accidents happen,” Tarik said dismissively. “Masterminer Britell’s board of inquiry never accused me of anything.”
And that confirms that Tarik is still even more an asshole, in addition to an embezzler.
After a small threat about what “accidents” might happen to Tarik, Tenim thinks he might drop in on the festival at Natalon’s. Which turns out to be that Tenim is the one who blocks the chimney by displacing bricks with stones. Which incenses Pellar enough to tackle Tenim and try to stop him. But Tenim is a head taller and twenty kilos heavier and apparently fairly effortlessly chokes Pellar out into unconsciousness after they both take a hard fall off of one of the cliffs, and that’s the end of Chapter 3.
Pellar gets better, of course.