By Ellen Ryan
If you’ve ever talked to me about books for more than five minutes, there is a 250% chance that I have mentioned Anne McCaffrey’s series: The Dragonriders of Pern. If you haven’t had the misfortune of hearing me go off on a tirade of love for this series, then never fear! That’s what this column is all about. As the series is so big, I’m going to attempt to talk about it as a whole as opposed to discussing one individual tale.
Considering the first book was published in 1968, and Anne McCaffrey continued to publish books throughout her life (writing many of the later novels in collaboration with her grandson, Todd McCaffrey, who has taken over the series since her passing in 2011), it’s no surprise that the Pern series is a pretty big one. Twenty-three novels, two collections of short stories, and a few uncollected works, which is great news for any fan of the series, not so great news for that fan’s bank account. I was introduced to the books back in high school, and now, eight years on, I’m still not finished reading all of them – mostly due to my terrible habit of getting over-excited and re-reading the books over and over instead of moving onto the next in the series…
So what exactly is the Pern series?
Pern is a planet in the Rukbat system, which humans colonised with the intention of gradually adopting an agricultural lifestyle with low levels of technology. The exact details surrounding the status of humanity and Earth are never fully explained in the novels, but honestly, you don’t really need them to be. Instead, what McCaffrey does give us is a vibrant and amazingly detailed picture of a pre-industrial society with lords, holds, craftsmen, and – the kicker of the series – dragons.
The dragons aren’t like the dragons you may imagine from fairy tales or legends – there’s no knight to slay the beast, or a princess being whisked away to a cave – but instead were genetically engineered by the Pernese in order to battle Thread. Thread is the constant threat of the series, an organism that eats any organic matter, and has ultimately moulded Pern into the society we learn about. The dragons have various abilities to help fight the threat – from the ability to teleport, to telepathic communication, and then the more traditional fire-breathing nature. Dragons choose a lifelong human companion upon hatching, with whom they share a mental bond, and thus we have the Dragonriders of Pern.
So, we get dragons, dragonriders, the politics of Lords and Ladies, a deadly threat, and a mix of sci-fi, fantasy, romance, drama, and history all thrown in together. It’s a pretty attractive mix for people who like a richly built fantasy world (or even just cool and sometimes hilariously sarcastic dragons). But what makes the Pern series so unfairly addicting is the fact that it’s not one 23-book-long tale, it is this myriad of stories and people than span over 2500 years of history.
What we get from Pern is the cherry-picked legends, the best from all 2500 years of Pernese history. Some stories are in trilogies within the series, some stories are connected with recurring characters or events, but ultimately you get glimpses of every aspect of life from around Pern. There’s definitely at least one tale in the series that you’ll love.
Without a doubt, you need to read the series in order of publication in order to get the full experience – as Anne McCaffrey suggested herself. Sure, the first book in the series, Dragonflight, is set 2500 years into Pern’s timeline, but it manages to give you just enough snippets of history so that when you finally get to the novels that show us an earlier time, it makes it all the more thrilling to see and recognise the legends being made.
Despite that, the series doesn’t often lose its drive: the overarching plot is always the threat of Thread and how humanity is constricted by its need to constantly defend itself. No matter what the focus of each book is, Thread is always looming in the distance and that’s what makes you move onto the next story. Saying that, there are some novels in the series that lack somewhat in this sort of drive, and it’s those ones that more dedicated readers can struggle to force themselves to read. At times we can be left with this sense of exhaustion or impatience that a handful of books feel like annoying filler episodes that just waste our time. However, if you do come across them, the series is so expansive that you can easily just skip them and move onto the more interlocked parts of the series.
Characters are a somewhat argued about subject when it comes to this sort of series. Naturally, with the different subplots and timelines, the main characters of the books change often. You could find this refreshing: a new set of eyes to see Pern through. Or, you could find it disheartening: a new group of characters to get to know with every other book. I find my opinion lies somewhere in between.
For starters, you can’t help compare main characters, and naturally you’re bound to have preferences. Dragonflight’s main character, Lessa, is a vibrant and strong woman, with an interesting backstory and amazing chemistry with the other lead characters in her books. She makes an impression, and a lot of the time, she makes the story. Compare her with a character like Nerilka from Nelrika’s Story, and Nelrika is sort of weakened – not because she is a badly written character, but simply because she doesn’t have the same presence in her novel as Lessa does in hers. There’s also the problem in that sometimes you can’t help but fall in love with a character, and then you simply don’t get to see them very often – though, likewise, they can show up again as a minor character in the most unexpected places.
On the other hand, however, you have a wide variety of characters to meet and fall in love with. Fresh outlooks can show the audience more intricate parts of Pern, snippets of the world that we wouldn’t see otherwise. Besides, it’s a pretty nice surprise to pick up the next book and find yourself following the journey of a character who was referred to as a legend in the last book you read.
There are endless possibilities to what could come next out of the Pern series, still countless years that haven’t been written about, so it’ll certainly be interesting to see where Todd McCaffrey takes things. He’s already shown that he’s willing to dive into new territory by a small group of books that further expand on whers as opposed to dragons – whers being the uglier, less intelligent, and nocturnal cousins to dragons that don’t get nearly as much love as they should in some of the earlier published novels.
I can’t recommend the Pern series enough to anyone. I’m not saying that I passionately loved every single book I read, but the variety of subplots and characters mean that there’s practically something in there for everyone. Where the series will go from here, it’s hard to say, but I for one will happily abuse my bank account to make sure I find out.
Ellen’s Top Pern Books:
- Dragonflight (the first and a classic)
- The White Dragon (with some of the most interesting characters of all!)
- Dragonsdawn (how it all began…)
- All The Weyrs of Pern (a true squeal-fest of excitement once you’re in deep)
For other books written by Anne McCaffrey have a look here.
If you’ve read any of the Pern series, or have another book/series you’d like to recommend, please send your thoughts/reviews to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks for reading!