Dragonflight (Dragonriders of Pern, #1)
First published in 1968
From Goodreads: HOW CAN ONE GIRL SAVE AN ENTIRE WORLD?
To the nobles who live in Benden Weyr, Lessa is nothing but a ragged kitchen girl. For most of her life she has survived by serving those who betrayed her father and took over his lands. Now the time has come for Lessa to shed her disguise—and take back her stolen birthright.
But everything changes when she meets a queen dragon. The bond they share will be deep and last forever. It will protect them when, for the first time in centuries, Lessa’s world is threatened by Thread, an evil substance that falls like rain and destroys everything it touches. Dragons and their Riders once protected the planet from Thread, but there are very few of them left these days. Now brave Lessa must risk her life, and the life of her beloved dragon, to save her beautiful world. . . .
I first read Dragonflight in high school, back before the days of ubiquitous internet and social media, before I knew what made a book ‘good’ or ‘groundbreaking’. It didn’t even register that it had been published in 1968, when the world was very different from what it was even in the 1990s. When I read Anne McCaffery’s Pern novels in my teens, I just wanted to read about the dragons and their daring riders as they flew to defend their world from the dangerous, space-bourne Thread that would destroy everything if the dragons couldn’t stop it first. I might have read Dragonflight a time or two over a summer, read the rest of the Pern books the local library had, and then gone on to different books.
Through the next twenty years, I remembered the Pern books fondly, but I hadn’t revisited them until now.
Anne McCaffery’s Dragonflight was the first of her Pern novels and introduces us to Lessa, a young woman hiding in plain sight from the men who slaughtered her family and stole her birthright as the leader of Ruatha Hold ten years earlier. She has spent those years plotting and enacting her revenge and is on the brink of achieving it when F’lar a dragonrider from the only remaining Weyr on Pern arrives on Search. The last queen dragon has finally laid a golden egg that announces the imminent hatching of the first new queen dragon in years, and F’lar and his men are looking for a young woman who could bond with the new queen and lead the dragonriders. Even as Lessa enacts the last part of her vengeful plan, her life changes utterly when F’lar sees through her grimy disguise and takes her away to Benden Weyr, where she Impresses the new queen dragon, Ramoth, and begins her education in the ways of the dragonriders.
But no matter how easy the life of a Weyrwoman seemed to Lessa when she was living in rank servitude, she discovers that it is much more difficult than she ever imagined. Especially when the near mythical Thread returns for the first time in centuries, and Pern is utterly unprepared for its arrival.
Dragonflight is a quick read. I think I started it one day and finished it the next with little effort. It is easy to read, and you can follow the plot and characters’ thoughts and intentions without putting much effort into it. The characters are, for the most part, easy to like (if they’re the heroic ones) and dislike (if they’re the bad guys). McCaffery’s writing is so engaging that you quickly learn the terminology of Pern, wherein ordinary words like ‘thread’ take on a new and sometimes frightening new meaning. If there is anything to dislike about it, it is that things happen very quickly, and the characters seem to make snap decisions about even the most important subjects. Given that this was McCaffery’s second novel, I can chalk that up to inexperience and move onto the other ‘issue’: the Mystical Waif trope.
The Mystical Waif is a young girl (or boy) who is often destitute and removed from her normal environment (Lessa’s family is murdered, and she has to hide her noble status). Her secret powers or connections are hidden until they’re plot appropriate, and then everyone finds out just how special the Mystical Waif is. And Lessa is special, not just because she’s a noblewoman in hiding who goes on to form a lifelong bond with a majestic queen dragon. Lessa is a smart, spirited young woman who, when people tell her she can’t do a thing, goes and does the thing to prove everyone wrong. She’s smart, opinionated, and doesn’t apologize for her anger unless she is actually in the wrong. In other words, she’s a Strong Female Character of the type that we’ve seen a million times now.
When Dragonflight was published in 1968, there were few, if any, Strong Female Characters like what we’re accustomed to seeing fifty years later. At the time, there would have been… Eowyn from The Lord of the Rings, Lucy and Susan from The Chronicles of Narnia, Uhura from Star Trek, and early incarnations of Wonder Woman? Am I missing anyone?
In 1968, the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation Movements were still very new. Many colleges did not admit women. Roe vs. Wade wouldn’t happen until 1973. Women could be denied credit cards because of their gender until 1974, and could legally be fired from their jobs for being pregnant until 1978. The 1960s were unfriendly to women and female characters, and so I have to wonder what the world thought of Lessa when she dared to wish for more than her assigned gender roles, pushed past the squawking, cowardly girls on the hatching sands, and dared to claim a great destiny.
Apparently, the world thought Lessa was pretty damned cool, because McCaffery went on to write dozens more books in her decades-long career. So while some might say that Dragonflight is just another ‘Strong Female Character following a old tired trope’, I look past that to the groundbreaking work that Dragonflight was when it came out. Sure, the writing isn’t up to the standard of McCaffery’s later books, but its publication helped to launch a beloved series that told the stories of brave women (and brave men), and gave the sci fi/fantasy world Anne McCaffery, a woman who became a legend in the scifi/fantasy world when women were mostly excluded from the genres.