This first book of The Dragonriders of Pern saga began as two novellas, “Weyr Search,” which won the 1968 Hugo Award for Best Novella and “Dragonrider,” which won the Nebula Award for Best Novella in 1969, making author Anne McCaffrey the first woman to ever win either one of the prestigious science fiction writing awards. Both of the short works were originally published in Analog magazine and they became the basis for the entire Dragonriders saga.
This is the only Dragonrider novel that focuses exclusively on the relationship between F’lar and Lessa and is noteworthy because it defines their feisty characters and the relationship that develops because of they are the two strongest people on Pern and the two whose strength must carry the planet in the 9th Pass of the Red Star. Please see my Introduction to the World of Pern for background.
Dragonflight is broken out into four parts with no chapters, although individuals scenes are separated by excerpts from Harper songs.
I. Weyr Search
Before the beginning of the 9th Pass of the Red Star to drop deadly threads on Pern, the power of the dragonriders has ebbed, the power of the Lords and their lands increased, and the Crafts have lost most of their knowledge to decaying record skins. In the long interval, 400 years have passed and the people of Pern have all but forgotten the ravages of thread.
Of the six dragon weyrs on Pern, five stand empty with no explanation as to why, leaving Benden Weyr as the only active home of dragons and their riders. The Weyrleader, R’gul, has led the weyr into isolation and allowed it to grow weak. The Weyrwoman, Jora, grew fat and lazy, dying when her queen laid her last clutch of eggs. There is one queen egg on the hatching grounds and riders have gone in Search of girls as candidates to be the new queen’s rider.
Lord Fax of High Reaches now runs six Holds, where each Lord should be entitled to only one. He took the second oldest and most powerful Hold, Ruatha, by deception, then slaughtered everyone of pure Ruathan blood and married a woman who only was only distantly related, so that he could lay legitimate claim on it. But one Ruathan of the true blood line has escaped, an eleven old girl, Lessa, with telepathic powers.
Ten Turns later, she is awakened at dawn by an unusual premonition that something is wrong. Since Fax killed her family, she has disguised herself as a filthy kitchen drudge and used her telepathic abilities to bring the hold to economic ruin. If Ruatha has no profit, she thinks, Fax might renounce it. Her dreadful feeling echoes a similar feeling ten turns earlier on the morning of Fax’s invasion. She watches the Red Star as it burns in the morning sky.
Several days later, F’lar, a wing leader of Benden Weyr arrives on his huge bronze dragon Mnementh at High Reaches Hold with his wing-second and half-brother, F’nor, on his brown dragon Canth, on the Search for a new Weyrwoman. Fax holds the dragonriders in contempt, but F’lar avoids a fight with him. He and F’nor go to see a former dragonrider, Lytol, who has turned to the Weaver Craft to suffer silently.
Moving on to Ruatha Hold, the dragonmen immediately sense a power at work, but they can’t trace it. Lessa has created havoc in the hold and Fax is disgusted, proclaiming that when the hold cannot support its Lord, he will renounce it. F’lar and the dragonriders witness his statement. He goes even further by proclaiming that if his wife, Lady Gemma, should give birth to a male, he would renounce the hold in favor of the baby. When she goes into labor, Lessa fetches a midwife, but Gemma dies giving birth. Thinking this is her opportunity force a duel between Fax and F’lar, she announces that the child is male. F’lar is finally able to identify the source of power as Lessa, but Fax gives her a severe blow for her announcement. The duel between Fax and F’lar ensues and F’lar kills the lord.
F’lar convinces Lessa that she must return to Benden Weyr and be presented as a candidate for the new queen, to renounce her claim to Ruatha in favor of the baby boy, so she reluctantly agrees. The watchwher, seeing that she is leaving makes an attempt to kill F’lar, but when Lessa warns him not to, the watchwher contorts its body to keep from striking, breaks its back and dies. The dragons all keen, giving the ugly beast a hero’s death. Lytol is appointed Warder to the new heir, Jaxom.
Back at Benden Weyr, F’lar gives Lessa the bathing room while he takes Mnementh to feast on some of the stringy bucks kept in the pens for dragon food. She washes all of the filth away and when he sees her again, her hair flows down to her waist. She has a small body and is beautiful. With no fear at all, she impresses the new queen, whose name is Ramoth.
Two Turns later, Lessa hates her lessons with R’gul and wants to fly Ramoth. She fumes because F’lar does nothing, but when Ramoth finally rises to mate, Mnementh catches her and Lessa ends up bedding F’lar. As the new Weyrleader, he takes command of the weyr. When a united army of Lords marches against Benden, he sends riders to abduct their women, then he confronts the army, proclaiming that the Red Star is approaching and thread will fall soon. He gives them orders to clean their Holds of greenery, to restock their fire heights, and to begin full tithing to the weyr. To punctuate his demand, he shows them their ladies on dragonback and then Lessa shows up flying her great golden queen.
III. Dust Fall
When F’lar teaches Lessa to fly Ramoth between, she turns rebellious and decides to go back to Ruatha, but she gives Ramoth the coordinates of the old Ruatha from when she was only 11 years old and she passes between back in time and watches herself hiding during Fax’s invasion. She tries to go back home, but returns to the day at the beginning of novel when she awoke with her premonition. Both F’lar and Lessa think that at some time the ability to time travel may come in handy.
In an attempt to figure out when the thread will begin to drop, F’lar and Lessa begin to go back over their old records, which have faded with the passage of time. Ramoth lays a gigantic clutch of 41 eggs, which take as proof that the threads will be falling soon, but they worry about their ability to fight it, since they are only one weyr and there were six to fight it in the past. Lessa worries over the Question Song, a weird teaching ballad that says the missing weyrs had “gone ahead.”
When the clutch is hatched, F’lar brings in family members of the candidates and begins to open up the hatchings to the public. The one new queen, Prideth, is impressed by Kylara, one of the women who had previously been a candidate for Ramoth. After a patrol, F’nor returns covered in dust and F’lar realizes that it is thread that has been killed by the cold. The wing fights their first thread and many dragons and riders are wounded because they are all just learning the skill. Worried about how to handle the situation, F’lar decides to send F’nor, Kylara, and other riders back ten Turns and put them in the south, where they can rear more dragons and riders. Later that night, F’nor comes to see him to report that his plan is working, before he’d even started it.
IV. The Cold Between
F’lar puts his plan into action, even though F’nor has hinted that things don’t go all that well in the past. The next day, he holds a meeting with Lords and Craftmasters to see if anyone has any ideas on how they can get through the crisis. For the first time, we meet Masterharper Robinton, Weavermaster Zurg, and Smithcraftmaster Fandarel. Zurg remembers having seen a tapestry that showed not only dragons fighting thread, but men on the ground with machines that threw fire. Fandarel wants to get his hands on it and when it is finally produced, he studies the machines and plans to use Agenothree to fight thread on the ground.
Studying the tapestry, Lessa sees that the depiction of Ruatha Hold is as it was 400 turns ago. Using this as a time coordinate, she decides to jump Ramoth between 400 turns to bring the missing weyrs forward in time to help them fight thread. When she disappears, F’lar is beside himself with worry. Although she makes it through, the trip destroys her physically and she takes months to recover. However, the old Fort Weyrleader, T’ton, and his Weyrwoman, Mardra decide to follow her forward in time and they talk the other five weyrs into coming with them. Lessa instructs the oldtime Masterharper that he must write the Question Song, so that Lessa can later use it to realize that the she must go retrieve the weyrs.
Using the position of the Red Star to guide them, the weyrs jump ahead twenty turns at a time until they are back in present day, the beginning of the 9th Pass. F’lar is incredibly relieved. Pern has been saved and Lessa realizes how much he loves her and returns that love. They are now weyrmates for life.
Thoughts on Dragonflight
As the first book in the series, Dragonflight has a different feel to it than all of the rest. Writing it, from the two novellas, must have been a terrific learning experience for Anne McCaffrey because she was setting up—and would later change her mind on some things—the basis of the entire series. There are a lot of little things that she changed as the series developed. To name just a few: T’ton is changed to T’ron immediately in the sequel, Dragonquest, and in Dragonflight, bronze dragons blood their kill before the queen does when she mates. That was dropped entirely in all future books.
We don’t meet Robinton and Fandarel until fairly late in the novel and even then they do not appear to have the significance that they would develop almost immediately in the second novel and which would develop immensely throughout the entire main timeline of the 9th Pass..
The first time I sat down with Dragonflight, I thought I was reading a fantasy and I was ready at any moment to put the book down, but McCaffrey lays all of the groundwork in a scientific or pseudo-scientific manner. The planet was colonized. The dragons were genetically engineered. There is a scientific rationale for the dragons breathing fire. The medieval society is the result of a more erudite society breaking down in times of crisis. Everything is set up scrupulously as a science fiction based novel.
Even with all of the groundbreaking, the book remains mostly the love story of F’lar and Lessa and it is told very well. Both of the characters have extremely strong personalities that uniquely suit them to be the leaders of Pern and bring it back from the brink of feudalism. Although the sex that occurs when dragons mate is certainly not lovemaking in the purest sense, it leads to lovemaking. It is a physical act, but that act alone draws the people closer to love. F’lar states at one point that his lovemaking with Lessa is just one step short of rape, but her mutual concern for Pern, her care for him as Weyrleader, brings her to love him deeply and passionately.
Much of that simple relationship is present in the later books, but they more deeply concerned with the weyr and the planet as a whole. Different characters take the main stage as the series progresses and F’lar and Lessa, although clearly remaining strong and powerful leaders, are superceded by the stories of F’nor and Brekke, Robinton, Menolly, Piemer, and ultimately Jaxom and F’lesson. The interplay between crafts, the discovery of the original landing, all play a part in moving F’lar and Lessa to the back shelf.
This book is their love story and that will always make it special.