“Dragonflight” by Anne McCaffrey

Yes, I just re-read Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey, one of my favorite books from girlhood. But I had a good reason. Really.

Books and Bars is reading Lev Grossman’s The Magicians for July. (And he’s reading at Barnes & Noble Har Mar tomorrow night.) It’s about a guy who still re-reads and loves a Narnia-like fantasy series from his childhood, so a woman who’d read it already suggested going back to a book we’d loved and wished were real when we were young. I chose Dragonflight, because it was the one I wished most fervently was real, and the one whose heroine I envied.

I used to own most of the Pern books, but have gotten rid of all but this one, since the last time I re-read them was probably in my early 20’s, or two decades ago. I was worried about revisiting a book I had such a strong affection for, and that made such a huge impression on me at the time (pun not intended)–it was a gateway book into sci-fi and fantasy for me. When I started reading, my affection was right where I’d left it. For better or worse, though, I could not silence my consciousness, far more critical and discerning that that of my younger self.

The back-of-book description is utter rubbish, so I’ll do a broad-strokes summary, though I imagine more than one of you is geeky enough to have read the Pern books, too. Pern is a colonized but abandoned world, with a largely medieval/agrarian culture. Lessa is a former noble who went into hiding as a girl when her family was slaughtered by an invader. She bides her time waiting for revenge and to claim her birthright, and thinks the time has come when a group of dragonmen come on “Search.” The old queen dragon has laid a golden, queen egg, and the men, led by bronze rider F’lar, are looking for intelligent, powerful women candidates to “impress” the new queen. Impression is a psychic link made between person and dragon at the time of hatching that lasts till one of them dies. Lessa, rather than regaining her birthright, goes back with the dragonfolk and *gasp* impresses the new queen, who is the great hope of the dragonriders to revitalize the dragons, who protect the planet from a rain of deadly spores (”threads”) that takes place every two hundred years or so. Few believe the threads are real. F’lar and Lessa do, though. Will the threads reappear? Will Lessa and F’lar triumph over them?

This was heady stuff for me as a teen. Lessa had telepathic powers, plus a psychic dragon. She also got handsome F’lar. The book was sort of the next progression from horse books for me (dragons being just bigger, psychic creatures than horses), plus with “romance” (not really that romantic, as I discovered this time around) and sex. (When the dragons go into heat, so do their humans.) I very much wanted to be Lessa, with psychic powers, a dragon and a tall, dark, handsome man.

With all due respect for its age (same as mine–1968),there was a lot of disturbing, disappointing stuff in there. Lessa is supposed to be a strong female heroine, yet she is both a virgin and unknowing when her dragon goes into heat, and she ends up having sex for the first time with a dragonrider. Further, that dragonrider was having sex with others, won’t share his affection for her, only his frustration, often shakes her physically, and notes that without the dragons involved, their sharing a bed “might as well be rape.” Well, if the shoe fits, and all, then maybe it is.

During the book, Lessa has only one conversation with another woman (unless you count her dragon, and I don’t), and it’s about home economics, so hardly forward-thinking stuff. Women play a subordinate, domestic role in society, and the men are portrayed as polygamous. And while Lessa and F’lar are perhaps almost three dimensional, none of the other characters are. The women are either matrons or sluts, and the men are either loyal or stupid.

Re-reading this book was a curious mix of old joy and current discomfort. I loved this book when I was a geeky, hormonal teen, but find it problematic today. I probably would not recommend it to anyone, much less a young girl, who deserves a book with a strong female character who is friends with other strong female characters, and not subject to the physical and psychological manipulation of men.

I’m having a hard time thinking of a YA or YA fantasy book that has this, though. Even ones that are better about the psycho-sexual relations between the sexes (or within one) usually have the young girl as a loner, and not friends with anyone with whom she talks about things other than boys. What books am I forgetting here, readers?

15 Responses to ““Dragonflight” by Anne McCaffrey”

  1. Amy Says:

    Can’t help you. Wasn’t much for fantasy back in the day.

    I know what you mean about re-reading with trepidation, though. I’ve re-read more books in the past year than I usually do, some with great success, some (cough *Kristin Lavransdatter* cough) falling short on another go-round.

  2. Farrar Says:

    I had the exact same reaction to that book as a young reader and the exact same reaction to it now. In some ways I think it’s similar to the same reaction that teen girls have to Twilight now. In both stories, the girl is set up to seem like the heroine, but in reality is a pawn to the men around her. In Dragonflight, she eventually falls for the philandering man who assaults her and it’s made to seem sexy. In Twilight, she falls for her stalker and that’s made to seem sexy.

    There are lots of YA fantasies with actual strong women. Robin McKinley’s books come to mind, among many, many others. But you’re so right that the girl is usually a loner. What about Tamora Pierce’s many series? I think she’s tried hard as an author to present varied roles for women, varied types of friendships and varied types of sexual and romantic relationships. Or Libba Bray’s Rebel Angels series? That certainly has strong heroines who also have companionship.

  3. Steph Says:

    Tony & I read The Magicians last year and both of us really didn’t like it. I got the homages Grossman was making, but I felt the book was charmless and a waste of my time. Obviously I’ll be interested to see how you feel about it, especially given your recent revisit of a childhood favorite!

  4. Jessica Snell Says:

    I liked the Pern books a lot when I was a teenager, and was troubled by the same things you were when I reread some of them as an adult. I still give McCaffery full marks for the world-building though; those dragons are excellent. I still want to ride one. :)

    Also, I was lucky enough to start with the Harper Hall books. I think Menolly’s story is a bit better than Lessa’s (at least romance-wise), though it still has that awful “ah-poor-me-detested! WHY-can’t-all-these-father-figures-understand-my-true-and-tragic-greatness” vibe to it. Ugh.

    As for YA books that have better (any!) friendships, what pops into my mind first are old classics like the Betsy-Tacy books (which go through and past Betsy’s high school years) and the Trixie Belden books. Betsy and her friends talked about literature and world events, not just boys, and Trixie and her friends talked about horses and school plays and the like, not just boys. I also think about books that had strong sibling friendships, like the Melendy kid books (”The Four-Story Mistake” and others).

    I read more YA sci-fi than fantasy, so I don’t think I can help you there. I think though, that YA fantasy often is about the young person discovering and deciding who she is going to be, so that whole “here is me and here is the rest of the world” loner thing kind of makes sense. There is a reality to the idea that adolesence is a lonely time, because you are the only one who can decide who you’re going to try to become. As an adult, once you more-or-less know, you can rejoin the community as a whole person and have real friendships. (Not that teenagers can’t have real friendships, but there’s a (proper) childish narcissism that (hopefully) drops away when you hit adulthood.) That’s my theory, anyway. :)

  5. tulip Says:

    I agree with Steph. I HATED this book. Whoo. I really want to see what you think. I am impressed with how you pull things out of a book that I wouldn’t necessarily see.

    I always loved the Wrinkle in Time series but I guess we would classify Meg as a loner/outsider. :)

    I agree with the Robin McKinley recommendation. Rosemary Clement Moore has a great series with a smart and smart ass girl who just so happens to be able to battle demons. Sarah Beth Durst has some great stuff as well. Lots of amazing women. I also agree with the Trixie Belden recommendation. Obviously not sci-fi or fantasy but I loved those as a kid and I just re-read some of them from the library. They hold up pretty well.

    “(Not that teenagers can’t have real friendships, but there’s a (proper) childish narcissism that (hopefully) drops away when you hit adulthood.)”
    HA! And Jessica nails what I didn’t like about the Magicians. The main character never loses his childish narcissism. Way to put it so succinctly!

  6. Steph Says:

    One thought on the YA fantasy front that has a strong female character, I think, is Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy. I think it deals with sexuality in a really interesting and honest way.

  7. girldetective Says:

    Steph, I do think His Dark Materials deals with sexuality in an interesting honest way, but I didn’t think it did the same for religion. And Lyra was that clever-girl loner type. The constant switching allegiances of Lyra’s parents gave me whiplash.

  8. girldetective Says:

    Tulip and Jessica, the Trixie Belden books were a favorite of mine (hence: name of blog), and Beatrice was at the top of the list of names if Drake or Guppy had girl parts. thought the friendships with Trixie, Honey and Diana were nicely done, and more complex than that of Nancy Drew, Bess and George.

    I can’t wait to look up some of these other series. I knew you readers would come through!

  9. girldetective Says:

    Farrar, you nail exactly what bugged me about Dragonflight this time around, and why I haven’t even bothered with the Twilight books.

  10. Kerry Says:

    I have the entire run of Trixie Beldens, even the last books released in the late 80s, and was thinking of blogging my rereading of them starting sometime this summer.

  11. girldetective Says:

    Ack, Kerry, you’re killing me. How would I join you AND read the Baroque Cycle plus books for my book groups? I have the entire set, too; I worked at Half Price Books for a year :)

  12. weirleader Says:

    huh, I’m half-curious to re-read the series given your analysis (and the 20ish years since I read it as well). But I’m thinking I’d be better off just remembering the good parts (agenothree — sheesh, am I a geek or what?) and remaining blissfully ignorant of the shallowness therein.

    A couple other books I remember enjoying (though I suppose they could hardly be called YA) are Mirror of Her Dreams and The Eight (nearly fantasy, with math and chess thrown in to boot). But now that I think of them in the right light it’s clear that they, too, are in the girl-loner category.

    The more I think of it, it seems that much of YA fantasy is built around the loner, be it boy or girl.

  13. Sherry Says:

    I loved the Pern books when I was a young adult, but I was disturbed by all the promiscuous sex. I had/have standards about that sort of thing.

    As for YA books with girls being friends instead of rivals or loners, that’s a hard question. Kiki Strike coms to mind. Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girl series is fun, not serious at all, but good for a rainy day. Shannon Hale’s fantasies have girls leading the way and sharing friendship and training together for leadership. Hilary McKay’s books also feature friendships between sisters and others.

    Hey, there are more of these kinds of books than I thought.

  14. carolyn Says:

    I’m pretty sure I STILL love those books. :)
    the Harper Hall ones in particular, but really all of them.

  15. Corky Says:

    Interesting discussions. Have any of you read Kristen Britain’s series “Green Rider”? If so, I would enjoy hearing your opinion.