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Dragon's Code
Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern
by Gigi McCaffrey
Del Rey, $27.00, 254pp
Published: October 2018

This is a rather odd volume to 'relaunch' Anne McCaffrey's 'Dragonriders of Pern' series, as a back cover note suggests, for a number of reasons. Firstly, the quality is not remotely up to the level of those books. Secondly, it would drop a whole bunch of spoilers to anyone who reads this first and then followed up with the originals. And, thirdly, it isn't a new book by the primary author of that series because, sadly, Anne McCaffrey is no longer with us.

Disclaimer: I grew up with this series and I've read most, if not all, of the books that were written solo by Anne McCaffrey. I may have come in a little late with the 'Harper Hall' trilogy, but I did follow it up with the original trilogy and 'The White Dragon' was a personal treasure on my shelf; as a teenager, I remember that I renamed my bedroom to Ruatha Hold and I have a cat named Pern. I read on as the series continued, over a couple of decades; McCaffrey kept coming back to it with a succession of mostly worthy prequels and sequels, in between her other work. What I didn't do was to continue on when she started writing in collaboration with her son, Todd McCaffrey, let alone when he went solo. This wasn't a deliberate decision, just a matter of timing.

So, this new novel returns me to a series that's an old friend whom I haven't seen in a couple of decades, only a little bit late for its fiftieth birthday—'Dragonflight' was first published in July 1968—and I find myself confused and underwhelmed. Much of that is because I can only conjure up one reason why Gigi McCaffrey, who's the daughter of the original author, would write this particular novel and it isn't a good one.

Before I go there, I should mention that I enjoyed 'Dragon's Code', which is a likeable enough creature. It's an easy read and I knocked it out in a couple of hours. There's nothing in it that antagonised me or left a bad taste in my mouth, at least nothing specific. There were a few scenes, especially late on in the novel, where I felt an abundance of emotion and that's appropriate for this series. Sure, it's just rural Irish life with horses turned into dragons and cats into fire lizards, but Gigi's mother did that so well that Pern became a home away from home and she also taps into that a little. But...

And there are quite a few buts to raise.

The first is that it feels like there's absolutely nothing new here. It's been a couple of decades since I last read those original novels, but this is the most familiar new book that I've ever read in my life. I knew where the story was going because I've read it before. I knew what was going to happen next because I've read it before. Everything that constitutes an actual plot here is lifted from earlier books in the series that this author didn't write, notably, if memory serves, 'Dragondrums' and 'The White Dragon'. Why would Del Rey choose to 'relaunch' a venerated series with a retread?

The second is that, perhaps somewhat appropriately given that Gigi is the third McCaffrey to contribute to this series, this feels more like a family reunion than a novel. While she casts Piemur as the lead character, it's clear that she wants every other important character from that era of Pernese history to show up for a spotlight scene. Sure, it's great to chill again with Robinton and Menolly and Sebell, but we have to wonder why.

The third is that there's no point to be found. 'Dragondrums' provided Piemur with a notable story arc, including his coming of age and his loss of one purpose but his finding of another. This novel thinks about doing the same but doesn't go any further than to allow him to learn a lesson that will be useful to his development. Is there any substance here beyond that? I don't think so. While Piemur is clearly the focal point, he also has almost zero bearing on anything that happens. It goes down despite him, mostly where he isn't, and the few parts that he is involved in directly don't really go anywhere.

And, with that said, let's return to that reason, the only one I can suggest for this novel to exist. Gigi McCaffrey, who's surely in print more because she's a daughter than she is a writer, wants to honour her mother's legacy by adding something to her most famous creation but she has no frickin' clue what that might be. She clearly cares about Pern and its people, but as a fan just like the rest of us. It wouldn't surprise me if Piemur was her personal favourite of all the many characters the series generated and so she chose to write about him. However, without anything new to say, she chose instead to summarise a whole bunch of events already chronicled that happen to have him on their periphery.

In other words, this isn't a novel; it's a literary exercise. I have to see it that way because, if we look at it only as a novel, it's a failure because there's no point for it to exist except to celebrate an anniversary and it would have done that better with a circulation that didn't exceed family, close friends and anyone in the publishing industry who helped to bring Pern to a mass audience. You and I really shouldn't care who the original author's daughter liked best in her most famous series, but it would make a nice Christmas card for her publisher.

As a literary exercise, though, it's a success. It allowed Gigi McCaffrey, who we ought to see here as a wannabe writer, to ease into the profession relatively safely by writing a novel even though she had nothing to say. To do this, she clearly revisited the 'Dragonriders of Pern' series, analysed it, built a timeline and then summarised the events of a fictional era like a literary historian. Once done, she took a single character from that era and looked at how he must have seen those events. By this point, she must have had well over a hundred pages of material, maybe half of what ended up as this book. All she had to do then was to rewrite her notes as a narrative and fill in a few gaps to allow that narrative to flow. Voila! A new novel!

The real question is that, now that Gigi McCaffrey has done this, has the process prompted her to want to write more? If it has, there's potential. The segments here that feel new aren't bad, per se, especially as a beginning. I would pick up another Gigi McCaffrey book to see if the work she put in on this experiment made her a writer, just as long as it's something new and not another something old. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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