There are two fantasy genre tropes that I could do without. First, the stagnation: the world has been in a rot for ages, even thousands of years with no progress at all. It was better then: the society of yore was wealthier, the people mightier, wiser, and had longer lifespans. (They probably had better dental hygiene, too, although this is pure speculation.) The current civilisation has lost a lot of the knowledge of magic and technology, especially the good guys; the bad ones seem to have marginally better archiving systems because they gear up earlier and the good guys scramble to catch up with them.
Second, in a typical fantasy society, all travelling is tedious and slow. (This is a corollary of the first trope.) As without exception the story at some point necessitates going somewhere (“there and back”), a sizeable portion of fantasy books is spent walking, riding, rafting, scaling mountains, freezing, hunting and foraging food, preparing meals, eating, and, invariably, fighting hordes of blood-thirsty, grotesque creatures the enemy throws at you at regular intervals. Journeys are long, arduous and hazardous to your health. Better stick to tavern keeping – unless your name is Kvothe.
Dragonflight has the first trope, but luckily not the second one.
The backstory is quickly told in an epilogue: at some point Earth colonized many worlds, one of which was Pern. For some reason the might and apparently interstellar technological prowess of Earth left Pern for good leaving the colonists to their own devices. It is as if the Pern was colonized by prisoners and other unwanted elements and the wellbeing of the population was not a priority. No long or even short range sensors, no propulsion engines to get out of the gravity well. These I infer from the fact the solar system must not have been mapped: there is a read stray planet which causes problems every 200 years by getting too close and emitting threads which burn everything that gets into contact with them. If a thread burrows into the ground it destroys life for a long time.
To counter the threat the colonists manage to breed local animals which are dragon-like and named thus. In order to communicate with Dragons colonists develop their telepathic skills. The Dragons and their rider can burn the threads in-flight. Moreover, the dragons can teleport to a location imagined by the rider, which helps in combat logistics. Thus, the second trope is averted for Dragons and dragon riders, at least.
Now, finally, to the story.
We are introduced to Lessa, a young woman, who seems to be disguising herself to be an old, nondescript woman by slouching, hiding her face and being dirty. She’s the rightful heir of Ruatha which was conquered by Fax, a ruthless and successful lord. Only by hiding has Lessa survived the wrath and inevitable death. She definitely has an axe to grind with Fax.
Lessa is also telepathic. She can communicate with the hold’s watchwher, an old dragon with clipped wings.
At the same time, there is a time of Search. The Weyr – the dragon force protecting Pern from very infrequent thread menace is searching for a new female minder (Weyrwoman) for the new dragon queen about to be hatched. One of the dragon riders, F’lar, comes to Ruatha with his posse in search for such woman – Ruatha historically having good bloodlines for such things – but due to Fax’s pruning of the old rulers and their families (luckily, missing Lessa), and Fax’s reluctance to help the search party no suitable candidate is found.
Lessa, however, sabotages a feast making meats cook unevenly (burned and uncooked), and manages telepathically to start a fight between Fax and F’lar. Eventually, Fax is dead. Immediately, Lessa claims herself the rightful ruler of Ruatha. However, there is an heir, born during the fight; F’lar understands that Lessa might have the chops and manages to persuade her to come to the stronghold to try to become the Weyrwoman for the soon-to-be hatching new dragon queen.
The thread threat from the Red stray planet missed the last cycle 200 years ago, so, the current Weyrleader R’gul is very conservative, even timid. But so much information has been lost: what really are the threads, what are good ways to fight them. Especially the latter part of the book is spent searching for any information regarding the good practises of yore. To make things worse, most of the strongholds are empty: most dragons and riders vanished soon after the last battle was won 400 years ago. The defenders are woefully understaffed.
The leader is the dragon rider who’s dragon mates with the queen, so this is the only hope for F’lar when such an occasion happens with the still-unborn dragon queen. So, F’lar does not want to raise his objections to R’gul’s safer ways too much, as there is a chain of command and he is a good boy. But such safe ways, such as not making all holds give tithes, so, there is some concern about food safety.
Lessa is a manic pixie girl even though she’s the lead character. But she does bring anarchy and her own strong will to the equation to both the aggravation and elation of F’lar and her tutor, R’gul. And she still keeps her secret of being able to communicate with all the dragons, such as F’lar’s own Mnemeth.
When the new queen, Ramoth, hatches, she chooses Lessa as her Weyrwoman and they bond. Lessa’s role is to help nurture her, regulate her eating, and learn to together such things as flying and – now finally we get to science fiction – flying between. It is teleporting to place B if you can imagine the place B well enough. It’s beaming by thought. It’s cool.
When it is time for Ramoth to mate, she does choose Mnementh as its mate. Note that the riders are with the dragons during the act and there is emotion telepathically transmitted.
Finally, F’lar is the new Weyrleader, we are in a science fiction story and the somewhat sluggish pace accelerates noticeably.
F’lar asserts the position and strength of Weyr and the lords are put in their place. Lessa practises flying between and learns to fly between in a new, revolutionary way. The threads starts to fall from the sky and the Weyr manages to destroy them, but with casualties. So, surviving repeated attacks becomes paramount. The existing 200 or dragons are not enough. Lessa, F’lar and other scour Pern for information (they find blueprints for flamethrowers, among other things). Eventually, an answer is found from an old poem, combined with Lessa’s stubbornness and her skills to fly between like no else which start to turn the tide.
The latter half of the book is gripping which more than compensates the laggard pace in the beginning – and the stagnation trope. Can’t wait to read the next book in the chronicles of the Dragonriders of Pern: Specifying and Implementing Long-term Information Storage In Order To be Ready When the Next Wave Begins.