Most of The White Dragon is about, well, a very special white dragon, and his incredibly privileged and almost as incredibly whiny rider, Lord Jaxom of Ruatha Hold. Heavy on adventures and illnesses and questionable romance, the story of Jaxom and Ruth helped land the book on The New York Times Best Seller list.
But the more interesting story has nothing to do with Jaxom and Ruth, and everything to do with how the people of Pern are reacting both to the ongoing danger of Thread, an alien organism that attacks them on a regular basis, and the ongoing, more mundane environmental threats of overpopulation and resource deprivation.
Oh, and finding out just who the people of Pern really are.
Despite feeling considerably better, to the point where he can swim and play kiddie games out in the sun, Jaxom is still down at Cove Hold, attended by two full time nurses, Brekke and Sharra. I get that as the only person on Pern who is both a dragonrider and a Lord Holder—a Lord Holder without an official heir—Jaxom is a Very Important Person who must be cared for, but given the lack of medical personnel noted in the previous post, I really have to question the priorities here. Especially given that both Brekke and Sharra have other duties and responsibilities back in their respective homes. Hmm. Maybe they are taking advantage of Jaxom’s Very Special Status to take nice vacations on a sunny beach. Hey, maybe Jaxom’s privilege is finally paying off for other people.
The three of them catch up on the recent sad events at Ista Weyr by listening through their dragons, and, wow, does this feel like padding, since all of this was just covered in the previous chapter, but moving on. Sharra, the only one there who knows T’kul personally, is not particularly upset by his death. Brekke, who remembers the Oldtimers riding to their rescue, is. Jaxom decides to criticize the Oldtimers as well, deciding that his strongest point is that he heard Lytol criticizing the Southern dragonriders, which a) try to think on your own, Jaxom, and b) how is this even a point?
Anyway, Brekke realizes that she can be more useful elsewhere. Jaxom offers to convey her to Ista, only to be told that he can’t—he hasn’t recovered enough from his recent illness, and if he goes between, he could go blind. I want to know why this hasn’t come up before, especially given Jaxom’s habit of making unauthorized trips. Then I realize that part of the reason Sharra is around is to distract Jaxom and keep him at Cove Hold and, yeah, Jaxom sucks. Jaxom agrees to let Brekke fly Ruth without him. And then, he and Sharra almost make out.
Which is when Piemur shows up, because clearly, we haven’t had enough appearances from major characters from the Harper Hall Trilogy yet.
Back at Ista (in the more interesting plot), F’lar, Lessa and D’ram agree that D’ram needs to head to the Southern Weyr and take over—if only to prevent the Lord Holders from trying to take over the entire Southern Continent on the grounds that the Weyrs can’t retain order. Given that pretty much all of the duels and dramatic deaths have been Weyr-related, I rather feel that the Lord Holders would be correct to raise this point anyway. F’lar wants the Southern Continent, in order to ensure that dragonriders will not need to rely on Holders and Crafters in the future, once Thread is gone.
We also learn, surprisingly enough, that F’lar has been delegating responsibilities to R’mart of Telgar Weyr—this rather surprisingly since R’mart of Telgar Weyr has continued to avoid what I would term his main responsibility, as a character, to show up on the page.
Piemur just happens to be involved in this conspiracy, as he is in the South to map it—info that has been passed on to some of the dragonriders. Piemur, Jaxom and Sharra work on creating maps, right up until they are interrupted by plans to build a new Hold for Masterharper Robinton, where he can relax by the ocean and listen to the waves. I did mention that any resort chain would be desperate to build here. So are several people on Pern, all eager to help build the new Hold. Of course, this also shows them the Southern Continent.
Back in the North, Lord Groghe is clear: He wants the unheld land in the South. But he—and the other Lord Holders—are convinced, for now, that they need F’lar’s permission, thanks to a propaganda campaign from the Harpers of Pern. F’lar owes the Harpers a lot, is what I’m saying.
Meanwhile, back down South, Piemur points out the Dawn Sisters again—DUN DUN DUN—while Robinton and Menolly, slowly traveling to Cove Hold by ship, share a MOMENT. And also notice the Dawn Sisters—DUN DUN DUN!
So much time is spent noticing the Dawn Sisters, in fact, that I feel we should pause to take a moment to define them:
The Dawn Sisters: Three very bright stars which can only be seen at dusk or dawn, and only from certain latitudes. They don’t move. Like, ever. As impossible as this might sound. They are very suspicious stars, is what I’m saying. DUN DUN DUN…!
Moving on. This little scene between Menolly and Robinton has sparked all kinds of fan theories, including the conspiracy theory that McCaffrey initially intended to have Menolly and Robinton get together in this book—thus the focus on Robinton and Jaxom as the two main viewpoint characters and potential romantic rivals. And the theory that Menolly and Robinton hooked up during one of their voyages down south—quite possibly the shipwreck voyage referred to in this book—when Beauty and Zair, their fire-lizards, mated.
And that, for whatever reason, outside of this one scene, McCaffrey decided to scrap this for a Sebell/Menolly romance instead, providing the buildup for that in the next book to be published, Dragondrums—which, perhaps incidentally, does include a fire-lizard flight between Sebell’s Kimi and Menolly’s Diver.
I don’t really have an opinion on any of this, other than to note that in this book, Robinton decides he’s too old for Menolly and decides that she’s happy with Sebell, so it all works out.
After this, Robinton and Menolly finally arrive in the newly built Cove Hold, which like any good tropical resort offers a bathing room, barbecues, a beach, a porch large enough to accommodate dozens of guests, and customized wine glasses. It’s good to know that some human traits remain standard, even with dragons nearby. The younger group—Jaxom, Sharra, Menolly and Piemur—discuss the vivid dreams they’ve been having, and Jaxom decides that if he can’t separate Sharra from the group, he’ll just have to go visit Corana—the girl he hasn’t even bothered to send a message to in weeks now. Jaxom is awful, is what I’m saying. Robinton finds a new interest: archaeology. Wansor stays focused on his old interest: stars. Using a telescope to look at the Dawn Sisters, he and Fandarel make a major discovery:
“Those are not stars, Wansor,” [Fandarel] said, looking at the distressed Starsmith, “those are things!”
DUN DUN DDDDDDDDDDDDDDDUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNN!
(Though, may I quibble? Stars are also things, Fandarel. Brilliant, bright, hot swirling things that you know little to nothing about yet, but still, things.)
Ten minutes later, the characters conclude that humans used the Dawn Sisters to travel from somewhere else. One minute later, most readers figure out that “somewhere else” was Earth. Pern might have been introduced to readers as a backwards, feudal world with dragons, but turns out to be a future, feudal world, with dragons.
Quick note: The original editions of Dragonflight and Dragonquest lacked the “previously on Pern” introductions that gave this away to later readers before they even started reading, so the revelation that the people of Pern had spaceships at one point presumably hit a bit harder when The White Dragon first appeared than it does now. Even with those introductions, the reveal that the original spaceships from that trip are still up in the sky, and that the people of Pern have completely forgotten that they originally came from outer space, is quite something.
Especially given Brekke’s immediate question: Why, with the ongoing danger of Thread, choose Pern?
Given the increased focus on environmental threats and issues in these books—issues mirroring the threats to our contemporary Earth—it’s a sobering thought.
Sobering enough to the characters on Pern that they decide not to announce this discovery to everyone—even though not sharing information nearly led to the destruction of the entire planet just a couple of books ago, and led to farmers destroying the very grubs that could save their crops from Thread. You might want to reconsider this thought, F’lar.
The next day, guided by the fire-lizards, Jaxom, Sharra, Menolly and Piemur explore further south—and find the Plateau, the first settlement on Pern. I would say this is awfully lucky, except, well, they didn’t find it by accident. This discovery brings all of the major leaders of Pern to Cove Hold and the Plateau, including–
DUN DUN DUN–
–R’mart of Telgar Weyr, who after an exciting offscreen life of time travel, near death, and major responsibilities after Turns and Turns of injuries, finally shows up to tell us that he has no interest in the main plot. I mean, okay, fair, and perfectly in character given his ongoing expertise in avoiding showing up in the text so far, but I’m going to confess: I’m a bit disappointed.
Mirrim is also present, largely to let Jaxom and readers know that Ruth is asexual, which somehow leads to… Jaxom and Sharra hooking up. (It may be best not to ask.)
Fortunately for my sanity, other things are going on. Lots of other things. Jaxom finds the spaceships that brought the initial settlers from the Dawn Sisters to Pern. Toric plots to take over more of the Southern Continent, and F’lar, Lessa and the Harpers plot against him. Maps in the spaceships show just how huge Pern is and where some potential new mines are. Oh, and in a side plot, Toric kidnaps Sharra to prevent her from marrying Jaxom, something that I was going to applaud him for until it turned out that by “not good enough for my sister,” Toric meant that “Ruatha is too small and too poor,” something that a) isn’t true and b) more importantly, is not the issue with Jaxom, Toric! Or, even if it is, it’s like maybe issue 507 on the long list of reasons why you don’t want Jaxom marrying your sister. It’s reason number 2043 on mine. Anyway, since Sharra can reach Ruth telepathically this side plot doesn’t last long and Sharra ends up marrying Jaxom EVEN THOUGH SHE SHOULDN’T and Toric ends up sending them lots and lots of fresh, tasty food from the Southern Hold.
What I’m saying is, this last section of the book has a lot of plot—more than the rest of the book put together, really. It’s also another reason why—aside from the misogyny—the whole “let’s kidnap Sharra and force her to marry a character never previously mentioned” side plot probably should have been left out. The book just doesn’t have time for this: It has radical social tensions, resource issues, archaeological digs AND SPACESHIPS to explore. Also dragons.
And one major character reveal, as mentioned: Ruth, it turns out, is asexual. I love this, and more specifically, the way McCaffrey handles it. Because as it turns out, being asexual isn’t a problem for Ruth—it’s just the way Ruth is. It’s the people around Ruth—mostly, but not limited to Jaxom—who find this a problem, not because it is a problem, but because, well… because they’re convinced it’s a problem.
Am I mildly bothered that the one asexual character in the books so far is also the one character who is visibly physically different than the others? Well, maybe a little bit. Am I wondering just what it means that Ruth has no interest in sex with dragons, but apparently participates telepathically in sex with humans? I’m trying not to. Would I be happier if Jaxom would pick up a little more of Ruth’s lack of interest in sex? Absolutely. Am I baffled by the dragonrider attitude here, since surely dragonriders—who lead relatively unnormal sex lives by the standards of their planet and society—can accept a dragon who leads a relatively unnormal sex life by the standards of dragon society? Sure.
But still, I like that the main issue with Ruth’s asexuality isn’t the asexuality, but the reactions to it. I like, too, that the asexual Ruth is not just heroic, but the hands down most likable and ethical character in the book (well, apart from the bits where he tells Jaxom that the quasi-rape stuff is just fine). I like the quiet insistence that another person’s sexuality or expression of that sexuality doesn’t have to affect yours (even if I could do without Jaxom wondering if it will affect his).
I’m more disappointed by the resolution to one of the ongoing themes of this novel: What to do with the growing population of Pern, in desperate need of more metals and chemicals as it continues to develop its telecommunications systems? The answer ends up being, hey, the Southern Continent is much bigger than we thought, and, bonus, thanks to those grubs, the settlers won’t even need dragons for protections. Even with the dragonriders claiming the best part, the Southern Continent is so large that anyone can have land there.
It’s a surprisingly muted answer, much less interesting than the complex responses offered in the previous book, and even the promise of potential SPACE TRAVEL BY DRAGONS, which I would have thought the arrival of, well, SPACESHIPS would have amplified. Alas, no; the dragons are going to be miners and farmers and archaeologists instead of SPACE ASTRONAUT DRAGONS which, let’s face it, is a bit of a letdown. (McCaffrey, to her credit, realized this and attempted to mitigate it to an extent in future books.)
The other subplot seems to be—and indeed, turned out to be—a setup for a later book. But the reveal that the people of Pern are descendants of ancient astronauts is a fascinating one, even if some of the steps leading to that reveal are, shall we say, convenient? Not so much the reveal that fire-lizards have excellent memories stretching back hundreds, perhaps thousands of years—that had been set up in previous books. But the way Jaxom just happens to end up in a lovely cove which just happens to be at the right spot to get an excellent look at the spaceships via telescope and also just happens to be close to the first settlement on Pern… Yeah. Convenient.
But intriguing. Why, as Brekke asks, did these ancient space explorers choose Pern? How did they set up telepathic communications with the local alien wildlife? And why did the people of Pern lose not just technology, but all memory of their heritage? The threat and destruction of Thread? A sobering, cautionary thought about the environmental threats we face today, if true. Or something else?
Those would all be questions for later Pern books.
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.