This will be the last book to bear Anne McCaffrey’s imprimature. Her death fell between its writing and its publication, and so I must admit that my response to Sky Dragons, during my reading, was coloured by that knowledge.
My relationship to the dragonrider books has long been ambivalent, although it’s a good while since I last read a new Pern book. (A decade at least: The MasterHarper of Pern was until now, the most recent one on my shelves, although it’s entirely possible I read and forgot The Skies of Pern at some point.) Anne McCaffrey will be remembered, rightly, as one of science fiction’s grandmasters — and I’ll remember her for her books’ deep and abiding effect on my twelve-year-old reading self — but re-reading the earlier Pern books as an adult woman, more than thirty years on from their first publication, it’s impossible to overlook their more problematic aspects. (Such as Lessa’s dubiously consensual sexual relationship with F’lar, post dragon-abetted rape, for example. The ambivalent position of the green dragonriders. The social hierarchy where “rides a bigger dragon” = “leader-type.” Ahem.)
Please note that minor spoilers follow.
Sky Dragons takes place many hundreds of years before the events of Dragonflight, during the Third Pass of the Red Star, rather than the Ninth Pass. It continues from events begun in Todd McCaffrey’s solo trilogy (Dragonsblood, Dragonheart, Dragongirl) and 2011’s mother-son follow-up, Dragon’s Time. It’s very much a series book — albeit, thankfully, one that ends with rather more conclusion than cliffhanger.
Not being au courant with the series to date leaves me at something of a disadvantage when assessing Sky Dragons’ successes and failures. How well it succeeds as part of the series, I can’t say, because I don’t know. How well it succeeds alone?
For me to be able to answer that question fairly, the McCaffreys shouldn’t have made the main character someone with whom my inner twelve-year-old would fall in love — gleefully and immediately. Xhinna, rider of blue Tazith, is a woman riding a fighting dragon. Not only is she a leader whose skills see her promoted above bronze and brown riders, but her primary romantic relationships are with other women. At last, lesbians ride dragons! (Not that I’m not okay with heterosexuality. It’s just pretty awesome to have other options represented.)
Xhinna is one of a handful of adult dragonriders sent back in time to help rear and train enough young dragonets and their riders to make up the shortfall in Pern’s Thread-fighting dragons. Those who have gone back in time are now unable to time-jump forwards, and must wait until several years have passed. Xhinna swiftly finds herself in a leadership role. Over time, she negotiates the problems involved in feeding and training her wing of dragonriders and in Searching out new candidates for the dragonets, and comes to terms with her own position as an untraditional leader. Also, she has a few small problems to navigate in her relationship with her primary partner, Taria, a young woman and a green dragonrider, not least of which is when Taria briefly abandons her for a man.
Sky Dragons has several young women who end up riding fighting dragons, and several interesting queen riders. It also has a slightly annoying prescient child and a decent amount of draconic derring-do.
But gleeful as Sky Dragons makes my inner twelve-year-old, however, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that this is a novel where training (or Searching) montages are interspersed with occasional relationship angst at the expense of forward movement: the pacing is rather uneven, and three-quarters of the way through, the reader’s treated to a jump forward in the narrative — just as, I rather felt, things were getting interesting at Sky Weyr. A sense of real peril and consequences only comes into play with the onset of Threadfall at the very end, but these scenes seem compressed, almost forced. The narrative could have done, I think, with a bit more space to show Xhinna and her friends dealing with the danger of flying Thread, a little more activity there at the climax — to, if you’ll pardon the metaphor — show Xhinna stretching her wings.
Sky Dragons fits easily into the Pern continuum. It has many of the good things of the earlier books, while undermining or subverting several of the problematic elements. Today’s twelve-year-olds should be happy. So will those of us who remember Dragonflight and Dragonquest fondly, but find the presence of the 1970s Sexism Fairy a bit hard to take.
Liz Bourke reads a lot of books.