This review contains spoilers.
Dragonsdawn is a prequel to the entire Dragonriders of Pern saga. In fact, there is only one story which occurs in the timeline before Dragonsdawn and that is the short story, The Survey: P.E.R.N.c, which covers the brief period of time that the Exploration and Evaluation team discovered and conducted their examination of the planet that came to be called Pern. The short story may be found in The Chronicles of Pern: First Fall, a collection which includes The Survey: P.E.R.N.c, plus four other terrific stories which occur chronologically after Dragonsdawn.
This novel tells the story of the group of colonists who actually settled Pern and it explains most of how the society devolved into what readers encountered when they opened their first Pern book, which is normally (and should be) Dragonflight during the Ninth Pass of the Red Star. If readers had any difficulty understanding that world, this will explain all, from the difference between a wherry and a watchwher to how the dragons were evolved from fire-lizards.
In addition, if anyone has ever wondered how the Holds of Pern got their names, you will get introduced to the people they were named after. For example, Benden was named after Admiral Paul Benden, one of the leaders of the colonial expedition. The other leaders, Emily Boll, Jim Tilleck, and Ezra Keroon, likewise have holds named for them, as well as three villains among the colonists, Avril Bitra, Bart Lemos and Nabhi Nabol.
It is important to note that Dragonsdawn stands on its own as a novel. It may be read completely independently of any of the Dragonrider series and it will certainly entertain the reader. It is the book that absolutely marks the Dragonrider series as science fiction and not fantasy.
The description of the three space ships which bring the colonists to Pern and the debarkation itself makes for marvelous science fiction. McCaffrey envisioned colonization from pretty much every perspective she could and she truly makes it work. One senses the excitement of these war-torn people landing on a pastoral world that they can make all their own. The work that they do to integrate native flora and fauna with Earth varieties, the pastoral society that they are setting up, and their interrelations are all written with superb understanding.
The characters are brought to life with immaculate detail – especially young Sorka Hanrahan and Sean Connell, the main characters of the tale. But most of the colonists are extremely well written, from the leaders to the botanists, veterinarians, farmers, gypsies, communication specialists, engineers and supply people. Once again, Anne McCaffrey has performed a great job of drawing her positive characters.
But if McCaffrey has a weakness, I think it is in her creation of villains. I have noticed time and again the disconnect between the characters that we love and the characters we are supposed to hate. The love works fine, but the villains are thinly drawn caricatures, their motivations paper thin and the evil putty thick. Here again, Avril Bitra, the central villain, is almost comically unbelievable, having joined a colonial party and given up essentially fifteen years of her life so that she can take a few jewels from Pern, steal one of their small space ships, and spend another ten years of her life in hibernation so that she will be rich when she gets back to Earth. Even if she could be certain that she could pull this off, why? Luxury? It makes no sense. The other villains are even more unbelievable.
I don’t mean to take anything away from the novel – I love it and highly recommend it – but beware that the parts dealing with the evil people are a little unbelievable.
I’ve felt for a long time that Anne McCaffrey should have primarily focussed on the people that we care about, because that is her strength. And in this novel, surviving on the planet itself and the deadly fall of Thread are enough of a challenge to the characters we care about without having to throw in some bad guys.
And I have to include a note here also about the edition that I read, which was the Book Club edition published in 1989 or 1990 (there is no notation in the book). I have never read a book so completely full of typos that it actually detracted from the enjoyment of reading. Most editors can be allowed a few mistakes in any long book, but this Del Rey editor missed over thirty major typos, including repeatedly calling Jim Tilleck “Jim Keroon” (obviously confusing him with Ezra Keroon). It is hard for a first time reader to keep things straight with this kind of editing, but it makes a frequent reader grind teeth. Just beware of this particular edition – hopefully they fixed the problem in later editions.
On the other hand, the cover art by Michael Whelan (one of my favorite sf book cover illustrators) is really terrific, featuring Sorka Hanrahan standing outside a cave seaside surrounded by a fair of fire lizards.
I highly recommend this novel to all lovers of science fiction and fantasy, but particularly to readers who love the world of Pern. Enjoy!