Portrait of a Woman. Last quarter, I reviewed a McCaffrey book that inspired my own writing The Crystal Singer, so this time I’m tackling one of my favourites from her famous Dragonriders of Pern series…
THE WHITE DRAGON
Young Jaxom has accidentally impressed (Muse: telepathically bonded with!) Ruth, a white dragon so small he could hardly break out of his shell without help. But as only son of a Lord Holder of Pern, Jaxom cannot become a proper Dragonrider and fly his dragon to fight the alien “Threads” that fall from the Red Star and attack organic matter. (Think acid rain with nasty spores.) But since a dragon, once impressed, cannot be impressed by anyone else, he is allowed to take Ruth back to his Hold, where the other boys – jealous – call his beloved dragon a runt who will never fly. Needless to say, they are wrong…
“The White Dragon” begins with Ruth’s first flight, proving that – although small – he is plenty strong enough to carry his rider. Freed from the hold by his dragon’s ability to fly between, Jaxom sets out to prove Ruth is a real dragon by secretly teaching him to chew firestone so he can flame Thread. To make time between his many duties as Lord Holder’s son, he and Ruth fly between to the distant past – one of his white dragon’s many talents (another being the ability to communicate with the little fire lizards the people of Pern keep as messengers and pets).
But while he is busy training Ruth, the Oldtimers (dragonriders brought forward in time to aid Pern at the start of the Red Star’s current pass) steal the queen egg from Benden Weyr and take it back to the Southern Continent, where they hide it somewhere in time, hoping for a young queen to mate with their dying dragons. Benden threaten to set dragon against dragon if the egg is not returned, and then the fire-lizards start giving Ruth disturbing images of him taking the egg! Jaxom knows he didn’t steal it, and decides that they must have seen Ruth RETURNING the egg to Benden Weyr… so he sets out on a secret journey between time to do just that, averting a terrible war.
Jaxom knows he must keep his part in the rescue a secret, since the Benden weyrleaders think the Oldtimers have returned the egg. But how long can he control his tongue when he comes down with a life-threatening Southern fever? And how deep do his feelings run for the Southern Lord Holder’s daughter Sharra, who nurses him through it? When the Oldtimers challenge Benden, he and Ruth are in danger of being found out – until a startling discovery on the Southern continent brings a peaceful solution to their problems.
This is the third book in Anne MacCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series, which technically counts as science fiction since Pern is an alien planet. But the Dragonrider books have a definite feel of a fantasy about them with their glittering dragons, fierce fire-lizards, and medieval society, so you'll find few spaceships and gadgets here. Although the plot is quite complicated, you don’t have to read the first two books to understand the background because there’s a detailed summary of what has gone before at the front. Also, this is a new story about Jaxom and Ruth, whereas the first two books concentrated on different characters, so it reads well on its own.
Re-reading any book from a distance of 30 years is interesting, particularly since I am now an author myself and my Muse has developed a sharp critical horn. So it is a testament to Anne McCaffrey’s warm characters and imaginative storylines that sentences such as: “Resentment replaced the sense of loss as Jaxom found himself, loyal to Robinton’s precepts, trying to rationalize this wave of unpalatable reflection” melt seamlessly into the story, and I can honestly say I didn’t notice it when I devoured this book as a teenager!
At over 400 pages, this is not a short book. There is a rather long-winded section where Jaxom and his friends are exploring the Southern Continent and trying to solve the mystery of an erupted volcano, where in the Muse’s humble opinion about 100 pages could have been happily cut here without affecting the story. But this part is just as enjoyable to read as the rest, and worth it for the occasional gem such as when Jaxom finally gets it together with Sharra: “A warmth began in his belly, dispelling the cold… a warmth that had to do with Sharra’s lithe body against his, the scent of her long heavy hair in his nostrils as he kissed her, the pressure of her arms on the skin of his back. And her hands, flat against his waist, were not the hands of a healer but the hands of a lover…”
Originally published for adults, the Muse thinks this classic fantasy book would make a good read for the young adult market (which did not exist back then, would you believe?) Despite the example above, don’t expect too much in the way of actual snogging. But there’s plenty of adventure, atmosphere, and wonderful dragons to keep you happy, and Anne McCaffrey's typically strong scientific background should appeal to the more inquiring reader. If you haven’t read any of her Dragonrider books yet, give them a try! They're the original and the best.