It’s been my longstanding theory on multi-book series (by multi-book I mean ones that go well beyond the standard trilogy) that the books tend to fall into four categories: great ones (usually early on), good ones that don’t match the passion or excitement of the top ones but still sweep you along, adequate ones that serviceably move the grand story along but aren’t particularly original or well-written, and the bad ones that were just spit out because the series’ fans would buy them even if the covers were made of poison ivy leaves. Anne McCaffrey’s classic Pern series is a prime example of this classification system.
Pern is a classic for a reason. The first trilogy Dragonflight, Dragonquest, and The White Dragon (1968-1978), are simply great. The writing is taut, the characters strong and vibrant, the storyline compelling. And her dragons are, especially at the time, truly original creations, full characters in their own right, though both their and the human characterizations are enhanced by her presentation of their bonds — a strength throughout the series. One feels as sad at the loss of a dragon as one does at the loss of a human character, and when one goes without the other, the pain is truly piercing.
The setting for the series is the Planet Pern, colonized centuries ago by humans whose memories, technology, and ruins have long been forgotten in the wake of the destruction caused by Thread, destructive spores that cross space to land on Pern whenever its sister planet comes close enough. Pern has regressed to pre-technological life due to Threads earlier devastation. The major defense against Thread are dragons, bioengineered by the original colonists (though too late to save their society) to communicate telepathically with their riders and to be able to breathe fire so as to burn Thread from the sky before it touches and ruins the land.
In the time of the first trilogy, due to orbital quirks, it’s been so long since Thread has last fallen that its existence has become myth and the defenses against it either utterly lost or scorned. Only one dragon weyr (community of riders and dragons) exists and though its leader, F’Lar is sure Thread is due to fall again, his warnings fall on dead ears. In Dragonflight, he desperately seeks to convince people of the danger as well as find someone who can impress a queen dragon so he can start to rebuild the dragon force that will be required. His quest is resolved when he finds Lessa, who becomes his weyrwoman and who makes an astounding discovery and then takes an even more astounding risk to save the planet from threadfall.
Dragonquest continues their story, adding new characters and new conflicts while thread continues to fall and threaten their way of life. The White Dragon continues the story chronologically, shifting its focus to the much younger Jaxom and his “runt” dragon Ruth. Jaxom is both a Lord Holder (sort of a strong hereditary mayor of a community) and a dragonrider and finds himself sometimes torn by his dual responsibilities. Because he is younger, this is more of a coming-of-age tale than the previous two. Here again, new characters are added while more familiar ones gain depth as they develop over time. We also see a wider realm as we become much more familiar with the Holds than we have in the first two, which focused more on the dragonweyrs.
The second trilogy, Dragonsong, Dragonsinger, and Dragondrums, overlaps the events of the first and is aimed at younger readers, shifting the main focus once more, this time to the young musicians Menolly and Piemur. Again, these are well-written coming-of-age stories and again, we are treated to a broadening view of Pern’s society, as this time we enter the world of the Harper Hall, Pern’s versions of Bards. We also get a much larger introduction to the Master Harper Robinton, who will become one of the most beloved characters of the entire series. Once more, the characters are well-drawn, the storylines are compelling, the world-creation detailed and imaginative.
These first six are easily the strongest of the entire series — in their characterization, their pacing, their plots, their sense of adventure and originality. From here, we start to move downhill, though the trip is uneven, with some sheer drop-offs in quality to sudden rises to bumpy middle-of-the-road quality. What happens after the first six is we start to get prequels and sequels and more overlaps. The problem when one starts to shoehorn in new works into an already fully-created imaginary world is you now have to make sure everything “fits”. So prequels tend to have a feel of being forced into their shape — this has to happen here because in later books this happens, this has to have this name so in later books we can see why that name changed, and so on. This is the major flaw of the prequel books, such as Dragonsdawn. They have their strengths, but they feel so constrained by what must follow from them that they lose the sense of freshness that the original six books have.
The characterization is also not as strong. Better are the books that overlap or come somewhat before or after the original two trilogies but focus on other aspects of the Pern society, people who live neither in the holds or the weyrs, or books that focus on a single adventure in the “history” of Pern, such as the face against a devastating plague earlier in Pern’s history. Because they are less constrained by having to explain the origins of certain customs and so on, they feel much more organic as stories and while they never rise to the level of the first six, they are more compelling and more character driven.
The strongest of the other books are the ones that deal with the Masterharper and that close the time period of the first six books: All the Weyrs of Pern and to a much lesser extent Skies of Pern. The weakest are the last three, two of which are simply awful (including the last one) and a few prequels that felt like we were scraping bottom of the parts of Pern yet to be explored.
Should you read them all? The first six without a doubt. They are truly classic and if anything improve as they go on. And don’t skip the “young adult” dragonsinger trilogy — it’s some of her best writing and in fact I’d say better than the first two books, despite their supposedly younger target audience. Definitely continue chronologically to finish out that series and follow along with The Masterharper, her best character and the one whose scenes are the most moving. Read Moretta’s and Nerilka’s stories for lesser but still enjoyable stand-alone stories.
Fill in the PERN gaps with weaker ones such as Renegades though prepare to be disappointed, and though they are weaker still, you’ll probably be curious enough about how this all started to read Dragonsdawn and the other origin prequels. Dolphins of Pern, Dragonsblood and Dragon’s Fire are the weakest of the whole series and not really essential. Personally I’d advise against reading them, but you might enjoy the occasional snippet of fill-in-your-knowledge-of-Pern info you get now and then.
And some people are just “completists” — having to read everything in a series no matter how bad, how trivial, or how obviously commercial (you know who you are). No matter how bad or middling some of these books are, though, they can’t outweigh the clear strengths of the best in the series.
I remember reading those first six books Bill talks about in his review of the series as the best in THE DRAGONRIDERS OF PERN, and I remember absolutely adoring them. They were one of my introductions to the genre and definitely some of the first books I read with dragons, and so they were amazing. When I recently went back and re-read Dragonflight for the first time as an adult it didn’t live up to my nostalgia for it. Perhaps most bizarrely, there was the oddly common occurrence for the main character, Lessa, to be physically shaken by her male counterparts. I note this strange trend because it happened all the time. As a method of communication, ‘shaking bodily’ doesn’t rank high for me as a) a thing people do nor b) particularly effective. The more general tendency of Lessa being routinely underestimated even after she does amazing things also became more irksome than endearing.
Dragonflight still has all the dragons I used to love and a wonderful helping of time-travel adventuring, but for me that couldn’t redeem it for the utterly bizarre actions towards the protagonist. Still, I might read Bill’s recommended six for the nostalgia, but also for what Bill talks about as some excellent coming-of-age tales and deeper explorations into the society of Pern.