Before we get started, there’s another post on the Tor reread, but it concentrates itself mostly on the transition away from fantasy elements to science fiction elements in the first book. Some of the swearier bits covered here about consent, its lack, and the way that Kylara is portrayed as a slutty-slut-slut who nonetheless gets a gold dragon get more-than-a-footnote in that post, and the comments work to expand on that, but it’s not the focus of the post. It looks a lot like the early narrative of this reread is interested more in the genre conventions rather than the actual content. If they’re interested in picking up that thread later, it does a decent enough job of pointing out where there are contentious spots, but it’s not the focus. (It seems like a misplaced focus to me, but this is why both of our works can co-exist.)
On with the show.
Last time, Kindan challenged Vaxoram to a duel, and two people who had the power to stop it instead decided it would be a good idea to go forward with it, for reasons that have yet to be adequately explained outside of “toxic masculinity bullshit.”
Dragon Harper: Chapter 3: Content Notes: Vomit Indiscretion, Toxic Masculinity
Extra frosting on the cake of “are we sure they’re not trolling us?” is Chapter 3’s starting poem.
Be sparing with your wrath
Take not the angry path
Lest harsh words create harsh deeds
And fill your heart with bitter seeds.
Which I almost included in the last post because it was the cherry on top of this. We just spent an entire chapter enabling someone’s angry declaration and letting it blossom into a duel with swords, with all the adults that could have redirected it or otherwise put a stop to it basically deciding instead that the best solution to the problem of someone bullying another person is to let a different kid hopefully beat the tar out of him so that he stops. A+ idea, all of you.
This chapter begins with Kindan getting dropped off to see Mikal and start being trained on fighting with swords. Before we begin the training montage, though, Kindan says hello to Aleesa, who gives him a bit of approval of the way Kisk-Nuelsk behaved back at the end of the first book. But first we have to endure a bit more trolling.
Aleesa glanced beyond him to M’tal, then back. “This dragonrider says you’re here to learn how to fight someone.”
“Yes,” Kindan agreed.
“Over a girl,” Aleesa said.
“No,” Kindan corrected, shaking his head. “For women harpers.”
“Women harpers?” Aleesa repeated, chortling. “Women harpers,” she said again, more softly, shaking her head. “What next?”
“I’ve met many strong women in my time,” M’tal remarked.
“Anything is possible,” Kindan said, meeting Aleesa’s eyes squarely. “When women harpers become respected, all women will be more respected.”
I’m not discounting the possibility that Kindan is being honest in that this is what he believes, but I’m inclined to think of it as what Kindan believes now, after talking with Murenny and seeing that what Murenny was talking about makes a much better cause than “the bully insinuated the girl who has a crush on me and I were going to get busy in the baths,” which is what started the whole thing.
Mikal starts Kindan’s training with physical conditioning. Kindan complains that he only came to learn how to fight with his left hand, and Mikal tartly tells Kindan that he wants to see Kindan live through having to fight. Again, if the adults are convinced of murderous intent, why are they risking Kindan’s life?
Day two is destroying Kindan’s confidence by having him fence with Mikal using his dominant hand and getting bruised to hell as a result. Day three starts with training Kindan’s finesse by using the blade to bruise tomatoes, which Kindan is not very good at at all. In the evening, despite his bruises, Kindan gets told to sing a long, slow song, which we recognize as endurance for breathing and for doing things even when you’re tired, but that Kindan doesn’t really understand. Day four starts with Kindan running wind sprints, as Jaythen, who has taken Kindan hunting with him, insists Kindan run after every arrow he shoots at top speed. It ends with Kindan singing even more.
Day five has Kindan start by getting soaked with a bucket of water and told to run until he’s dry, at which point Mikal takes him to a clearing and forces Kindan to fight without his sight, so that Kindan can feel and hear the subtle shifts that accompany Mikal’s movements. Once he can do it to Mikal’s satisfaction, then they have Kindan fight with his off hand.
Day five continues with the first lesson in fighting for your life – go for the eyes. Which is softened somewhat in explanation as “people react instinctively to parry attacks to the head,” even if it is otherwise referred to as “go for the eyes.”
After fighting with the practice swords against Mikal, Kindan gets an actual blade and is instructed to “go for the eyes” on a dummy that had had tomatoes inserted into its eye sockets, while Mikal pivots the dummy away to stimulate the protective warding. Kindan tries for several times before succeeding.
One of the tomatoes was skewered and remained stuck on the end of Kindan’s blade. Kindan looked at it and his triumphant smile died on his lips as he grew pale and turned away from the one-eyed scarecrow. He pivoted swiftly and moved his blade just enough to get it out of the way as he heaved his guts.
Some time later, Mikal handed him a flask of water and Kindan realized the ex-dragonrider had dropped his ropes and was kneeling beside him, gently rubbing his shoulders.
“Drink and spit it out–it’ll clear out the aftertaste,” Mikal told him softly. Kindan obeyed, his insides still shaking. After a while, he felt better. “Are you able to stand?”
Kindan nodded and stood up. He was glad to get away from the stench of his own vomit. As he stood, he caught sight of his blade once more, with the tomato neatly skewered at the end. It was just a tomato.
“Kindan,” Mikal called softly. Kindan turned to him. “Now you understand what you’re doing, don’t you?”
Kindan nodded mutely.
“And you understand what Vaxoram will do?”
“He’ll kill me,” Kindan answered. “But that’s stupid.”
A trace of a smile crossed the old man’s lips. “So don’t let him.”
And they start practicing again. So if this was supposed to be the point at which Kindan learns that he might not be up to the task of killing someone and people work to call off the duel, we have once again missed it. Instead, it’s seen as some sort of “Now you know the stakes, and you had better be willing to kill, even if you don’t actually do it” sort of situation, reinforcing the necessity, rather than suggesting, perhaps, there’s another way of resolving this.
I suppose I didn’t really expect them to be diverted away, given how many times the dragonriders get into fights or get provoked into fights over their own pride and toxic masculinity. I keep expecting someone to realize what a terrible idea it is, and nobody actually does. As it is, Kindan decides he wants to learn how to hit right below the eye, so as to convince Vaxoram that he can go higher if he so desires. And to go through with it if Vaxoram calls his bluff on it. At the end of day five, Kindan gets a massage from Alarra.
Day six dawns with Mikal, Jaythen, and Aleesa all confronting Kindan in various ways, trying to make him answer from his gut without having time to think (or overthink), and then designing a training so that Kindan won’t get overwhelmed by Vaxoram in the actual fight. First with all three of them staring at him, trying to make him break eye contact with them. Arella provides verbal support at this stage. The narrative tells us that Kindan finds his inner strength by thinking about those he wants to protect, and all the friends that he has that he’s fighting for. Then they move to having Kindan be able to shout down all three of them shouting at him, without Arella’s help. When he accomplishes this, they all suggest that he not use his voice for the rest of the day, and give him encouragement about the fight. By himself, Kindan eventually looks at a stone he gathers from the river and decides to build himself an amulet.
Kindan remembered his earlier conversations with Mikal about stones, rocks, and crystals. He recalled that Mikal had decided to stay in the wherhold because he liked the stones and crystals to be found in the area. Kindan knew that crystals had healing powers, and could also be used for meditation, to focus thoughts. Perhaps if he could find the right crystal, he could use its steadying influence in his fight with Vaxoram.
And so now we’re also supposed to believe that crystal lore is just an accepted practice among Harpers, since Mikal pioneered it, instead of it being seen as fringey and kind of woo-woo, as I would have expected it to be. But Pellar used it last book, and Kindan uses it this book, and so it’s apparently just the way that it is.
Kindan gathers quartz from Aleesk’s chamber and citrine from a river bed.
He had learned from Mikal during one of the ex-dragonrider’s days at the Harper Hall that citrine helped to keep one cheerful and manifest goals, just as white quartz was good at manifesting power and concentrating intentions. Armed with these, Kindan felt he could not lose.
I’m still not sure why crystal lore has been imported to Pern. (There’s a Doylist suggestion that someone had done all the research for Crystal Singer and wanted to justify using it somewhere else, but I’ve been trying to avoid outside-the-page justifications for this long…) And why everyone just accepts it as so. Like, Pern is still nominally a-religious, except perhaps for the dragonrider cult, and so magical practices would presumably not have survived the transfer. Which says nothing about how they might be re-invented, but we continue to not see where they might have come from and how they might have flourished, so there’s still no thread I can pull from anywhere that even remotely justifies the existence of this practice. It, like Mikal, have come from whole cloth, or possibly some other story idea.
At the end of all this training, though, Kindan comes to another realization, this one more…useful, perhaps, than the last.
He could do this. He could meet Vaxoram and win. But his good feelings faded as he realized one thing: He could not blind the older apprentice to win, any more than he could kill him. It wasn’t that Kindan didn’t believe he had the ability now, nor that he wasn’t willing to do either deed if there was no other way–it was that he realized that winning by those means would be a hollow victory, would leave Vaxoram so utterly defeated that the older boy would have no chance to redeem his honor.
Kindan had to find another way.
I personally would like that conclusion to come from, say, the idea that blinding or killing Vaxoram would be a waste and a terrible idea because he’s still a child, even if on Pern he’s old enough to take on adult responsibilities. Or even if Kindan were channeling Sunzi when he wrote about leaving your enemy an apparent out so that they don’t fight with the strength of desperation and surprise you by hanging on to the end and inflicting casualties you can’t afford. Or because this is insight into Kindan’s brain that he’s going to be a really good tactician and diplomat because he is looking for a better, more permanent solution than one that starts up the cycle of violence again where someone in Vaxoram’s group will try to kill Kindan after Kindan hurts Vaxoram. The idea of “I can’t do this because it would leave him no way of redeeming his honor” puts the emphasis in entirely the wrong place, that it’s Vaxoram’s feelings that are the most important part, rather than Kindan’s life.
Vaxoram is a bully. Everyone agrees. Being offered a graceful way out is a far more generous option than being repeatedly knocked on his ass until he learns. It should be seen as Kindan extending a kindness and working on a solution he doesn’t have to do at all. It’s not his job, as the victim, to consider the feelings of the bully. It’s his job to protect himself. It’s not even necessarily anyone else’s job to soothe Vaxoram’s feelings on the matter. It’s everyone’s job to stop the bullying.
Day seven arrives, and Mikal has one last task for Kindan before he heads off to his fight – find ten reasons to live. (Because, as the narrative will tell us, that probably gives Kindan nine more reasons than Vaxoram to live.) Kindan has a bit of a stall on reasons two and three – Kelsa and Nonala, until he hits upon the reality of his situation.
“Because I love them!” Kindan blurted out, surprised at his words and the heat of his reaction. All of his half-formed dreams of kissing Kelsa, of dancing through the night with her, maybe even of partnering with her, vanished as he absorbed that. He loved them both, equally, and neither of them as a mate. Kelsa and Nonala were special to him because he knew they loved and trusted him; he would do nothing to alter that–he loved them too much.
Mikal takes his statement as truth enough, but this reasoning certainly seems like the kind of thing where the practical application of polyamory would certainly be a good idea. Both Kelsa and Nonala have declared their interest, and Kindan doesn’t apparently now prefer one or the other, although he had an easier time imagining himself with Kelsa because of her forwardness and ease. There’s no real reason why, other than the ribbing Kindan might get about having both of the girl apprentices in love with him, that the three of them can’t be a happy triad. Unless polyamory or polysexuality is something strictly reserved to the dragonriders (and watch-whers), and only during mating heats so they can all blame their lack of control.
In any case, now mentally and physically prepared for the fight, Kindan goes with Mikal’s blessing, and that’s the end of Chapter 3.