What is the matter with the weyrlings? This has, no doubt, been a common complaint for exasperated Weyrlingmasters the past 500 Turns or so, but in this instance there really IS something wrong with the youngsters -- a number of them are frequently inattentive, lack energy, and want to sleep a lot. A handful of the older dragonriders also suffer from this mysterious malady to a degree. Even the newly hatched dragons are sleepier than they ought to be.
Thus begins Todd McCaffrey's "Dragonheart", set at the very start of Pern's Third Pass, in the year (or "Turn") 507 After Landing. At age 13, Fiona, the only surviving child of Bemin, Lord Holder of Fort Hold, has unexpectedly Impressed gold dragon Talenth. As a junior Weyrwoman she has much to learn with little time to spare. Not only does she have to care for her rapidly growing young dragon, she has to learn all about managing a Weyr populated by hundreds of dragons, their riders, and the support staff.
To make things worse, Harper Kindan's fire-lizard dies of a serious lung ailment, and all fire-lizards are banished to the Southern Continent. Given how closely related these creatures are to dragons, no one can risk cross-species infection. Not with Thread so close to falling. Without dragons to flame this ancient menace from the sky, Pern would rapidly be rendered uninhabitable.
Alas, dragons begin to fall ill and then to die, and Thread begins to fall for the first time in 200 Turns. The ranks of the inexperienced dragonriders are decimated by injury from threadscoring. The situation is even worse when they're forced to fight Thread at night, when they can't see what they're fighting. Unexpected allies prevent utter catastrophe, but still the situation is getting more dire by the moment.
Given how many of Todd's Pern novels have dealt with plague, either among humans or among dragons, I should by all rights be completely fed up with yet another plague novel. Yet, as always, I've enjoyed reading this one.
One difference between this story and "Dragonsblood", a parallel novel taking place at roughly the same time, is the scope of the story. While in "Dragonsblood" the focus is on the likes of Kindan and Lorana, of Benden Weyr, desperately trying to find a cure for the dragon plague, in "Dragonheart" the focus is mainly on Fiona at Fort Weyr, and how she copes with growing up in a time of disaster and upheaval. She remarks at one point to Cisca, another Weyrwoman, that she's never really had a childhood, given how her mother and all her siblings had succumbed to another plague, described in the book "Dragon Harper". As a likely future Lady Holder she has always had to set an example for the underlings -- it's no different now, being a Weyrwoman.
Thankfully, about halfway through the book we get a respite from the dragon plague as the Fort Weyr leadership implements a daring plan for giving the injured dragons and their riders, plus the weyrlings, some breathing space to recover from their injuries, or grow up, before the next threadfall.
I guessed the cause of the mysterious muzzy-headedness almost immediately, but no matter. The main attraction of this book is in seeing sides of Weyr life we haven't seen before in such detail:
- How do young riders and their dragons train for flying and going "between" one place and another?
- What's the most efficient way of delivering firestone to dragonriders in the middle of fighting thread?
- How do dragonriders resolve their differences when the traditional Pernese sword duel is too dangerous, given how the dragon commits suicide if its rider dies?
- What happens if a young green dragon has her first mating flight before she has started chewing firestone?
Carrying on from Todd's earlier books, he also goes into more details about the Watch-whers, nocturnal cousins of the dragons long thought to be of dubious use, but now proving to be most valuable indeed.
There are lots of unanswered questions at the end of "Dragonheart", which will likely be covered in a future story. First and foremost, who is this mysterious queen dragon rider who can communicate with Fiona telepathically, and leads her and her fellow weyrlings to undertake a very dangerous journey at such a young age, only to disappear right afterward? Fiona and T'mar, a bronze dragonrider, have their suspicions, but they don't know for sure.
Also, what will become of Xhinna, a young virtually outcast girl whom Fiona befriends near the beginning of the book, but ends up having to leave behind for a number of Turns? It seems likely that Todd has something in mind for her, along with another girl named Terin. Only time will tell.
There's also a prophesy of sorts uttered by one of the desert traders encountered later in the story. This was one of the things that gave me a bit of a pause: a bit of mysticism that is traditionally absent from Pern books. Todd's mother, Anne, has always been adamant that the Pernese are non-religious, though they have a form of spirituality.
Also, while I can't think of any physical reason why Thread couldn't fall at night, it does seem like something Anne's characters two thousand Turns in the future would have encountered in the Ninth Pass, yet no mention was ever made of it.
My main concern with Todd's work is that, in a few places, I found myself a bit confused as to what time of the Turn it was. Some of those later chapters span weeks or months at a time, and I found it hard to keep track. Also, it seems like characters repeat themselves more than they ought. Todd probably could have tightened up the plot a bit by getting rid of some needlessly redundant conversations and observations.
So, should you read this story? If you're new to Pern, you're going to want to start with Anne's early works, such as "Dragonflight" and "Dragonquest". If you're new to Todd's books, you'll likely want to start with his earlier works as well -- a number of characters, like Harper Kindan, Lorana and Nuella the WherMaster, are introduced elsewhere.
Ultimately, if you like Todd's earlier works, I can't think of any reason why you wouldn't like this one as well. But, given the cost of hardcover novels, you might want to check some of the other reviews first.