Sure, Impressing a dragon and becoming one of the dragonriders of Pern might seem like the ultimate wish fulfillment. I mean, a dragon! A dragon that can take you anywhere and anywhen! A dragon that will share your every thought and always, always love you, ensuring that you will never be alone again.
Can you imagine losing something like this, though?
You could well go insane… as Anne McCaffrey describes in Dragonquest.
Buckle up, everyone. This might not be an entirely pleasant post.
In our last reread post, the dragonriders had just discovered that some disgusting insect thingies—grubs—seemed to be eating their ancient enemy, Thread. On this mildly disgusting and appalling note, F’nor slowly flies back to the Southern Weyr to have dinner with Brekke, musing on the way about how the Oldtimers have a different culture than modern dragonriders, and how the newly discovered—or rediscovered—fire-lizards might help dampen the growing resentment between dragonriders and non-dragonriders, in what feels like the thousandth repetition of that theme. (It isn’t, but it feels that way.) Brekke tells F’nor she feels disoriented, and that a violent upheaval is coming. For some reason, F’nor takes this as a romantic moment, and kisses her, which leads him to the realization that she’s a virgin. I have Questions, but before they can be answered, Brekke responds that she can’t do a mating flight, since that will force her to have sex with the rider of whatever dragon has sex with her dragon; she just can’t, because she’s not uninhibited or wanton and she’s just not the sort of person who can have casual sex the way dragonriders are supposed to. It all leads to this:
He wanted to be gentle but, unaccountably, Brekke fought him. She pleaded with him, crying out wildly that they’d rouse the sleeping Wirenth. He wasn’t gentle but he was thorough, and in the end Brekke astounded him with a surrender as passionate as if her dragon had been involved.
Unaccountably? F’nor, she’s just told you she’s not comfortable with casual sex, thus her terror about mating flights, and you’re surprised that she’s not entirely up for this? And you continue even while she’s fighting you?
Somewhat more helpfully, F’nor comes up with a solution to the dragon-enforced non-consensual sex: Let Wirenth be flown by a brown dragon—his own Canth.
Kylara sees F’nor and Brekke together and is infuriated.
This deeply unpleasant stuff—made no less unpleasant by its presentation as romantic—is interrupted by the considerably more romantic wedding at Telgar Hold. (Not that we’re given details, but since the new bride seems happy and isn’t getting forced into the marriage or sex, I’m calling that a rare win for romance in this book.) And that’s Telgar Hold, not Weyr. R’mart of Telgar Weyr, having conveniently absented himself earlier in this book, shows absolutely no sign of wanting to return to it. Probably a wise move.
Masterharper Robinton, though, never one to miss a chance at wine, does head to the wedding with a few journeymen, including Sebell. The wedding is filled with various important notables of Pern, narrative observations on the importance of having many sons if you are a man, Robinton ducking out of singing certain songs, F’lar and Lessa arriving with fire-lizard eggs, Kylara and Meron arriving with actual fire-lizards, and Kylara announcing that fire-lizards can eat Thread. This last is a particular plus, since it shows that the fire-lizards aren’t just pets, but can be useful, and also because T’kul of the High Reaches has apparently decided that fighting Thread is just Too Much and he’ll just nap, thanks.
Oh, and there’s also the unveiling of Fandarel’s distance communicator. Before anyone can ooh and ahh too much over this, the machine announces another out-of-pattern Threadfall.
You would think that the dragonriders would respond to this by heading out and fighting Thread, since that’s, at least in theory, their job. But no: T’ron, Fort Weyr’s leader, responds to this by attacking F’lar and starting a duel. F’lar wins, calls on everyone to support Benden, and exiles everyone and anyone refusing to accept his leadership to the Southern Weyr—without, I must note, asking the opinion of anyone at the Southern Weyr about this—and then he heads off to fight Thread as everyone else scrambles to move possessions and dragons between Weyrs. (The holders at Southern Hold, meanwhile, apparently decide to just sit it out.) The next day, still wounded, he holds one of his general meetings, first with the other Weyrleaders (except, again, for R’mart, still firmly avoiding taking part in this book) and then with the other Lord Holders and Craftmasters of Pern.
Which seems to be an excellent time for a few more quick definitions:
Green: An unlucky color to wear on Pern. Which may be related to some general attitudes and beliefs about all of those gay green riders, or may not.
Air: Something everyone, including F’lar, assumes must exist on the Red Star.
Journeymen: Men working for a craft hold who are no longer apprentices, but not quite masters of the craft—yet. Think people with a college or master’s degree, as opposed to a doctorate. In later books, they will be joined by Journeywomen, but we are still in “yes, yes, you do have to sleep with whoever your dragon wants you to sleep with” territory here at the moment.
Sebell: A minor journeyman harper conducting his first public performance, who has some trouble with his pants. Don’t worry, Sebell. Something tells me this questionable start is not a foreshadowing of your future career.
Grubs: Still really gross insect thingies, whose ability to eat Thread doesn’t make them any less gross, at least according to the people of Pern. (Insect lovers may wish to skip this book.)
Post-meeting, F’lar sneaks off to those formerly hidden rooms for a Grub Test, telling F’nor that he wants to protect Pern with the grubs so that the dragonriders can head to the Red Star to wipe out Thread. F’nor, surprisingly enough, doesn’t respond by asking why F’lar doesn’t send one group to the Red Star to wipe out Thread while the rest stay back on defense; I say “surprisingly enough” given his distaste for the grubs. (Did I mention that insect lovers may wish to skip this book?)
Over at High Reaches, Brekke is trying to deal with the huge mess left by the unexpected move, which includes cleaning the lake water to get it potable again, when Wirenth, her dragon, rises to mate. The golden dragon flies up into the clouds, followed by bronze dragons, when she sees another glowing dragon below her —Kylara’s Prideth. The two battle, despite the desperate efforts of the other queens and Canth to separate them, and vanish between.
In the aftermath, a green dragon rider, S’goral, returns with the unconscious Kylara, explaining that she had been sleeping with Meron during the mating flight—an activity that triggered the tragic queen battle.
…and I think we’ll stop here.
It’s an action-packed section, to put it mildly—what with sex! duels! dueling dragons!—and a segment that raises multiple questions, like, how much does Pern really need telegraph machines now that they’ve (re)discovered fire-lizards, who are perfectly capable of delivering messages instantaneously? (The answer to this, as it turns out, is not quite as much as the later books need people who are trained in how to make telegraph machines… not an entirely satisfying answer for this novel.) Or when, exactly, did old C’gan turn from the Benden Weyr Harper to the Benden Weyr weyrling and dueling teacher? Or why on Pern F’lar decides to let the disruptive Oldtimers have the most fertile land on the planet—without asking anyone’s opinion about this?
Or maybe ask Robinton what he means by this sudden “Of all men on Pern, harpers feared few” stuff? Hey, Robinton: In the last book you were telling us that harpers were regularly beaten.
Is that something they’re into?
Enquiring minds want to know.
But instead, I think we need to talk about Kylara.
Let’s review, shall we?
As Dragonquest reminds us, Kylara starts out as the high-ranking daughter of a Lord Holder. Four days before her wedding, she’s snatched away to Benden Weyr. She then spends her days in the Lower Caverns going from dragonrider to dragonrider, including F’lar. When her child is born, she has no idea who the father is. Later, she eagerly seizes the opportunity to be a queen rider.
Shortly after Impressing Prideth, Kylara is sent back in time to the Southern Continent with a number of people she barely knows, almost entirely for the purposes of forcing Prideth to be a brood mare (well, okay, brood dragon). F’lar sends only two full-grown bronze dragons with her, and since this is before F’nor gets his bright idea of letting Canth fly a gold dragon, this reduces Kylara’s choice of partners to two. We are later told that queen dragons need several bronzes in order to be happy. Only one other trained, adult rider, F’nor, joins them, and apparently, no other women.
The text also clarifies that spending time in the past—specifically, living at the same time as your past self—is exhausting, physically and mentally. When Kylara and the others return, they are in such terrible shape that they cannot even join the triumphant mass gatherings of dragons.
Sometime after this, she finds herself exiled to the Southern Continent again. She does, at least, hold the title of Weyrwoman—but as this book notes, that is not a title that automatically grants respect. F’lar, for instance, leaves women out of most of the crucial leadership meetings in this book, and nearly everyone keeps referring to poor Bedella of Telgar Weyr as not that bright. But should Bedella’s perceived lack of intelligence really shut the other women out of these discussions?
Kylara would argue—and does argue—no.
So. Kylara is taken from her home, passed around from dragonrider to dragonrider, helps to help create more dragons during a major crisis at great cost to her own life and mental health, is exiled for all practical purposes, forced to have sex with a man she despises whenever her dragon rises to mate, and occasionally outside of those times as well. And then, because she just happens to be having sex with a partner she has chosen just as Brekke’s dragon rises to mate, she loses her dragon.
Just ten days later, Lessa informs Masterfarmer Andelon that Kylara still lives, but “with no more mind or wit than a baby.” Something that I fiercely hope doesn’t mean “coma,” since nothing in the narrative suggests that the Healers on Pern know how to feed people in comas, or have the technology to create feeding tubes.
Google informs me that people can survive without water for about ten days. Twenty-one days without food.
After this, Kylara drops out of the narrative completely.
And I’m supposed to consider this character the villain?
Kylara’s not without her flaws—many and major. Her choice in men, for instance, is terrible—Lord Meron is cruel and a terrible Lord and landlord, something that can’t be completely blamed on grief, since he was awful in his very first appearance back in Dragonflight. Her arrogant, dismissive and frequently cruel attitude towards other dragonriders and Meron’s servants is appalling, and can hardly be excused by “My life sucks!” And sure, Kylara has enjoyed a comparatively privileged life compared to Lessa, especially since nearly every major trauma Kylara experienced—witnessing the brutal death of two women during Ramoth’s Hatching, having her mental and physical state scrambled by time travel—is something Lessa experienced as well.
But I would argue that Kylara’s resentment stems from very real mistreatment and abuse by her fellow dragonriders. Her seeming obsession with sex seems to be, at least in part, a coping mechanism. Because, really, what options does she have, after she’s taken to Benden Weyr? She can either remain in the Lower Caverns, jumping from the bed of one dragonrider to the next, or working as a cook and a cleaner, or she can become a queen rider. But once a queen rider, she’s trapped, unable to leave the Weyr.
To her credit, McCaffrey would later examine this issue of dragonriders, men and women, bound to their Weyrs, unable to pursue other interests. But not here, where Kylara is trapped by her bond with her queen dragon—a bond that she cannot break without severe risk to her mental health, as this section shows.
And one more note: Kylara is universally condemned for choosing to have sex while a mating flight is happening directly above her—something that supposedly sets Prideth off, which the dragonriders later term as dragon abuse, and others equate to murder. But how, exactly, was Kylara supposed to know that Brekke’s dragon was going to rise that day? Not to mention that another queen rider, Pilgra, notes that Prideth was already close to rising—that is, that Prideth might well have risen to mate even without the stimulus of Kylara having sex.
And not to mention that we are specifically told, many times, that the other female dragons—the green dragons—rise to mate all the time. To the point where it’s blamed for the high sex drives of everyone in the Weyrs. And yet, when this happens, do the rest of the green dragons and their male riders have to head elsewhere?
No, no they do not. This is just something that the golden dragons and their women riders must do.
Should Kylara have noticed her dragon’s condition? Sure, maybe. After all, Pilgra did. But the first part of the book went out of its way to note that dragonriders might not notice these signs—and that the signs might not be obvious in every case with every dragon. Prideth and Kylara had spent the day before moving from the Southern Weyr to the High Reaches, under stressful conditions—the same stresses that might well make those signs difficult to notice. That same part of the book stressed that the emotions of a dragon—especially a dragon about to mate—can affect the rider, and cause the rider to act uncontrollably.
Making it entirely possible that Kylara doesn’t have that much control over her sexual desires.
And making her as much a victim here as Brekke.
At the very least, it seems a rather extreme punishment just for having—and enjoying—sex.
Add in that this section also includes a scene where a woman who is upset that she’s about to be forced into sex thanks to her telepathic bond with her dragon is… forced into sex by someone trying to demonstrate that, hey, forced sex isn’t all that bad, not to mention lines like “The air was full of dragon wings now, the screams of frightened women counterpointing the curses of men,” and I’m left with a very uncomfortable, itching feeling, and not from the multiple insect descriptions.
As a teen, I read this without understanding many of the implications. But even then, I felt considerably sorrier for and angry about Kylara than, I think, the text wanted me to. I still do. That this all happens in what is otherwise one of the best sections of the novel—a section that finally stops all of the dithering and repetition, and confronts head-on the issues of culture shock and environmental responses that the earlier part of the novel tended to deal with only gingerly—doesn’t mitigate those feelings. That this all happens in the direct sequel to a novel that featured a woman questioning and fighting against the status quo instituted by men just makes it worse.
You go, Kylara. I’m so sorry that you lost your dragon, and your mind. If I could, I’d give them both back.
Mari Ness currently lives rather close to a certain large replica of Hogwarts, which allows her to sample butterbeer on occasion. Her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Fireside, Apex, Daily Science Fiction, Nightmare, Shimmer and assorted other publications—including Tor.com. Her poetry novella, Through Immortal Shadows Singing, was released in 2017 by Papaveria Press. You can follow her on Twitter @mari_ness.