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There's something about winter's approach that makes me seek that extra comfort factor. Stodgy comfort food, of course! A favourite 'comfort movie' when you're feeling cold or poorly, snuggled up on the sofa. And I wholly recommend comfort reading - when you want an excuse to spend extra time under the duvet, or giving your brain a rest from more taxing pursuits. For me, Anne McCaffrey's Chronicles of Pern novels are perfect comfort reading. Not exactly young reader, but not demanding; flights of sheer fantasy to another world - perfect!
The story of Pern is one of planet colonisation gone wrong - the idyllic world turns out to be attacked by plant- and flesh-eating 'Thread' every few hundred years, as a rogue sister planet swings close enough to allow across-space 'attacks' by the deadly organisms. The original settlers were technologically advanced enough to genetically engineer giant versions of a local species of lizard, thus creating dragons - an idea from Earth myth becoming a world-saving reality, as the dragons (and their telepathically bonded riders) can fight the Thread. Time moves on, history becomes fable, and eventually we reach the fantasy world of a pastoral community - one that just happens to include dragons!
In recent years, the world of Pern has moved on a generation - I don't mean in story terms, as those cover many different time periods. But it seems that Ms McCaffrey has passed the baton on to her son, Todd. Despite being published (slightly) after McCaffrey Jr.'s first solo attempt (Dragonsblood), Dragon Fire and its sister novel, Dragon's Kin (the pair are set over the same time period), seem to me to be the transition novels, co-written by mother and son.
Dragon's Fire is set much earlier than the original Pern novels, during the second Interval (i.e. the time between Threadfalls) after the planet was colonised. This means that the Pernese society is well-formed and largely as we know it, but the inhabitants still retain most of the knowledge - if not the technology - of their beginnings on the planet.
The focus of the novel is new (apart from the concurrent Dragon's Kin), centred around the Shunned - people who have been cast out of their Hold societies for laziness or misdeeds, forced to try and scrape a life in the wild. It really doesn't seem to be a good solution, to me: outcast, they often have little choice but to resort to criminal activity to survive, becoming yet more of a problem. And it is desperately unfair that families - including children - inherit the outcast status, despite committing no crimes themselves. It seems that the Harper Hall (basically the guild of teachers and musicians for Pern) has reached the same conclusion, as they embark on several missions to try and reach out to the Shunned, and perhaps find a solution to the issues raised. The first mission goes wrong: the Harper assigned has vanished. Can Masterharper Zist fare better, with the help of his mute apprentice, Pellar?
Pellar is the real star of the show here. He makes for an interesting character, mute but fiercely intelligent and with excellent survival skills. He and his master find themselves in a mining camp - an important part of the Pernese culture the series hasn't really explored before, I think, which gives an added dimension to the novel. The mine is beset by problems: the usual safety issues aren't helped by a dishonest miner who's helping a nasty Shunned steal coal. And so starts a bit of a sprawling story, as one group of Shunned will stoop to anything for financial gain while others struggle merely to survive. Ultimately they could affect the fate of all Pern, as the Thread-destroying ability of the dragons depends on the explosively dangerous firestone mined at great risk. What happens if the last firestone mine is destroyed? And who but a Shunned man with nothing left to lose would risk the future of an entire planet for the chance of a quick buck?
I'd read a lot of the obvious comments that Todd McCaffrey's work didn't quite live up to his mother's, but I was actually pleasantly surprised by this book. On first picking it up, I really couldn't see a great deal of difference between the writing styles or even content. It does take a different slant - the Shunned and mining communities - which I actually appreciated, both for something a bit different and also to minimise the feeling of trying to duplicate what's come before. I suppose it would be fair to suggest there's a slightly more masculine feel to this novel, too - nothing really obvious, but just a tad less touchy-feely-ness, perhaps.
However, in hindsight I can see some weaknesses do creep in. My biggest issue here was the sprawlingness of the story, large cast, and just a general sense of muddle trying to keep everything straight as things began picking up pace. My synopsis above really only covers the beginning: soon we are introduced to plot threads surrounding the missing Harper, the son of the crooked miner, and the earlier origins of the Watchwhers - dragon-like, but not quite so glamorous. From a fairly measured pace in the beginning, as we are introduced to Pellar and his life as a mute Harper, the story soon flings itself along, trying to cram in all these different elements, but - in my view - never really deciding which one is the main heart of the piece. Indeed, by the end the whole thing just seemed to have diluted itself: yes, the threads were tied off, but without a real sense of climax. In other words, I thought there was a distinct lack of focus to the whole story.
What really doesn't help is the immense cast of characters, including a couple of harpers, a love-interest, those already mentioned above and a slew of minor extras. Few - Pellar aside - felt particularly fleshed out, in my mind, and are moved on- and off-stage to suit the storyline. I got fairly confused between several: the dishonest miner and the even more crooked Shunned both had names beginning with 'T', which didn't help. There's one plot thread following the miner's son, but it doesn't become apparent that he's at all important until quite far through - meaning I didn't really pay much attention, and struggled to remember which of the mining camp's young people was which! At one point, I actually failed to realise that two 'baddies' were actually the same character - definitely not a sign of strong characterisation (or of my being particularly attentive, but I did suggest Pern novels were supposed to be laid-back, easy reads!).
Overall, however, it still remained recognisably a Pern novel, albeit one requiring a little more attention and with a little less feel-good factor along the way. The beginning and particularly the end were very recognisably 'in format' (even though that means the finale is a tad saccharine!), and it's just a pity that too much was crammed into the middle - the mining story had its drama diluted, the watchwher thread didn't have enough space at all, and the original central character, Pellar, disappears for a while in the middle of it all!
Despite all that, I did fairly enjoy the read. While not entirely satisfying, it whiled away a few cosy evenings for me, and I'd still happily pick up the first of the collaborations, Dragon's Kin, which looks to tell another part of the story following different characters. I'd suggest that only fans of the series would be interest in this, and only then if you're not *too* much of a fan!
Paperback 523 pages (Corgi 2007)
First released in 2006