To be honest, I don’t expect much when I pick up a Pern book anymore. These last few have ranged from middling at best (Dragonsblood) to nearly unreadable (Dragon’s Fire). While the eternal optimist in me keeps me reading the series, the realist in me can’t help but note just how long it’s been since there’s been a good book (I’m not asking for the glory of the great ones).
Sadly, Dragon Harper doesn’t break that streak. It’s not as bad as Dragon’s Fire, though that isn’t saying much at all, and it’s not quite as good as Dragonsblood, which also isn’t saying much since that novel was mostly just adequate. Timewise, the book picks up just after the events of Dragon’s Kin and Dragon’s Fire. Harper apprentice Kindan is having a tough time at Harper Hall — he can’t find something he’s good at and he and his friends (Verilan and two girls — Nonala and Kelsa) are tormented by the requisite school bully Vaxoram. Kindan eventually challenges Vaxoram to a duel and Vaxoram becomes his servant and then friend. Soon after, Kindan impresses a fire-lizard and at the hatching meets and falls in love with Koriana, daughter of Lord Holder Bemin of Fort Hold (who has Harper “issues” and is no way going to allow his daughter to hook up with one). Then we get the by-now-too-familiar plague sweeping across Pern, killing nearly everyone. Kindan and his young friends frantically search the records to find a cure and then gradually take on even more duties as the adults begin to falter before the plague’s onslaught.
Where does one start when detailing all the problems with the book? How about plot? The biggest problem has already been mentioned — we’ve seen it all before. The plague. The search through records. The sense of urgency. The exhausted survivors trying to save the others. The young apprentice constantly being bullied and having to stand up for himself. Dragons going between. Fire Lizards being impressed. If one can’t have originality, then one can hope for the comfort of familiarity. But there’s a fine line between familiar and stale and Harper crosses that line. Add in the sketchiness of much of the plotting (almost no sense of what is happening elsewhere, who else is combating this plague and how) and some implausibility tossed in as well, and the book just can’t rely on plot to save it.
The same sense of staleness resides in the characters who are at times overly familiar (Kindan has echoes of Piemur) but have none of the spirit or freshness of the characters they are pale shadows of. Some are mere caricatures — the bully and the redeemed bully. And, hearkening back to the major flaws of Dragon’s Blood, too many lack a consistent core. A character gloats over another, then less than a page or two later speaks with pride of the same person he was just gloating over. Characters switch moods on utter whims, with no sense of reason. Vaxoram’s switch from bully to devoted servant is simply unbelievable, with not even a facade of complexity tossed in. Characters learn to fight with their complete opposite hand in under a week. Try dribbling a basketball with a week’s practice in your off hand. Now imagine fencing with it. There’s suspension of disbelief, and then there’s not even bothering to pretend it’s believable. A character gets the smart idea of surgical masks to help contain the killer flu, but then simply waits around for full-fledged masks to be delivered rather than jury-rig something out of all the material at hand (such as the sheets flapping around outside since the laundress is dead). And the list goes on.
There are other issues as well — flat side-characters, clumsy introduction of feminist issues (it’s not the raising of the issue, it’s the painfully clunky way it is done), the reliance on “timing” once again to solve a problem (with all its attendant questions/ paradoxes), an unnecessary prolog that plays at being coy but is self-evident to any Pern fan and that adds nothing to the plot.
Is there anything good? Actually, yes. While way too familiar, the plague plotline, once it starts going and focuses solely on Kindan’s role as healer, is by far the strongest part of the book. The action is tight, focused, well-paced. Characters start to flesh out a bit and one starts to actually care about some of them. It’s a sizeable chunk of the book, about a third, and since it comes in the end it means the book leaves a relatively positive taste in your mouth once you finish it — no mean accomplishment after how bad the first two-thirds of the book were.
But a third of a book is still just a third of a book. The fact that it comes at the end means the memory of the book is more positive than it has any right to be, but it still doesn’t make it a good book.
So I can’t recommend this book. Though I fear most Pern fans will read it anyway, hoping against hope and experience — just be forewarned. Anyone who hasn’t read the Pern books yet will obviously start with the first ones so it will be long period of enjoyment before they get to the lower quality of the latter books. I envy them their journey and would recommend that current Pern fans can better spend their time retracing their steps in the series rather than continuing forward. I’ll let you know how the next one turns out — though I fear we all already know.