MORETA: DRAGONLADY OF PERNA novel by Anne McCaffrey
(1983, Ballantine Del Rey)
Dragonriders: 6th Pass, book 1
Near the end of a Thread Pass, a young woman must deal with a plague that threatens to destroy human life on Pern.
-- First reading (paperback)
Another terrific outing on Pern. This time, the author takes us backwards over a thousand years, when Dragonriders were at their prime, and already had forty years experience fighting Thread.
One of my first thoughts upon reading this book was that it gives us the sort of story that we were promised for the Star Wars prequels. Back in 1999, we were told that we would see Jedi in their traditional roles, and get to see how they kept order in the Old Republic. Instead, we got war, which was not a traditional role by any means. In this book, we go back to a time during the sixth Pass of Thread, when there had not been a long interval without Thread, and when Thread had been falling for decades already. Dragonriders are held in high regard; dragons mean safety. Dragons and their riders know exactly what they are doing, and they also know that they are less advanced than the people who came to Pern in the first place.
After seeing F'lar and Lessa struggle to gain respect and learn how to fight Thread in Dragonflight, which was very interesting in its own right, we now learn how tradition has kept the Weyrs, Holds and Crafts together.
Moreta is just as interesting as Lessa ever was, perhaps more so, because she knows her role already. In fact, the only parts of the book that I found to be long were chapters where Moreta was not to be found.
The book starts off on a very high note, introducing us to Moreta and Alessan as they attend a festive Gather at Ruatha Hold, Alessan having just inherited the Hold leadership from his late father. The Gather is easily my favorite part of the book, as we learn all sorts of new things about Pern, things that seem to have disappeared by the Ninth Pass. F'lar and Lessa's Pern is struggling to survive, so there is no time for betting on runner races, for example.
The Gather, however, is the perfect place to distribute a plague. Actually, it's the flu, but people end up dying from complications after their immune system is left in tatters from the flu. As in the Ninth Pass, people are obsessed with the Southern Continent, and what it offers in terms of new life, especially since the current Pass is nearing an end. A ship from one of the se Holds takes captive some sort of predatory feline which has never been seen before, and which happens to have the flu. Another Gather at Ista Hold is the perfect opportunity to show off the rare animal, which ends up devastating Pern's population.
The book takes less than two weeks to pass, and so much of it is character work. The characters all service the plot, however, which is information gathering, containment of the plague, and finding a solution. It is the characters who make the plot interesting, as different people react to the plague in different ways. Many of the Lord Holders become panicked or paranoid, isolating themselves from everybody and even putting bodyguards out. The Weyrfolk think themselves superior to everybody else, and are shocked when they contract the plague. Sh'gall, leader of Fort Weyr and current mate of Moreta, becomes furious when first she, then he contracts it, too.
The Master Healer Capiam is another main character in the book, as he tries to figure out what the plague is, and how to stop it, especially after he contracts it himself. It takes a long time to search the ancient records and find the cause. Fortunately, some knowledge that could have been easily lost was recovered when Capiam went through his old notes and found a way to vaccinate people.
My favorite parts of the book were chapters when Moreta and Alessan were together. They fell in love at the Gather, but both know their duties: a Lord Holder must marry, and a Weyrwoman cannot marry, because the rider of whatever bronze dragon mates with her golden dragon becomes her mate. I liked Orlith, too, especially her empathy towards Moreta, and the way she helped her through the flu.
When Moreta became sick, it was up to the supporting characters to take up the story, including Capiam and some other Dragonriders. The author implies that gay relationships are normal on Pern, as riders of green dragons, the sexually charged ones, often have relationships. Even if they are not sexual, they appear to be very much loving ones. But I suspect that they are sexual, anyway. I have mentioned before that I thought green dragons, being female, should impress female riders. This has nothing to do with sexuality, only the sex of the dragon. This was based on the female golden dragon choosing a female rider, but it will be interesting to see how the men came to fulfill this role so completely when the dragons were first bred, when I read farther "back" in time in the history of Pern.
When Moreta recovers, and the plague has passed, the story is still not over. I love that there is an aftermath, though it is the threat of another pass of the plague that keeps the story going. Unless every single person and runner beast on Pern is vaccinated, the plague could mutate and start a new cycle, as we well know here on Earth.
Another of my favorite chapters in the book is the calm collection of syringe-like thorns that grow on plants in a remote valley. Moreta, on the back of another dragon since hers is ready to clutch her eggs, goes with Alessan, Capiam and others, all male-female pairs, forward in time to harvesting season, to gather them. A secret only known to bronze and golden dragonriders, a few others find out about time traveling accidentally because of the excessive duties they are required to do, and there are not enough hours in a day. While collecting, Moreta and Alessan fall in love again, and each of the couples find an excuse to separate from the others to consummate their relationship. There is no graphic sexual detail, but their absolute love for each other makes it somewhat erotic, nonetheless.
The surprise, which should not have been a surprise at all, based on what comes before, happens at the end of the book. After Orlith goes to the birthing grounds and lays her eggs, she will not leave them for any reason. Moreta takes Holth, golden dragon to the former weyrwoman at Fort Weyr, to help with the final distribution of the vaccine and needles. Because of the need to prevent a panic, to vaccinate everybody in the same day, everywhere, and because one weyr becomes increasingly isolated and aggressive in that isolation, there are only a few dozen dragonriders available, and they need to use time travel to do this. Moreta, having grown up in one of the more remote areas, appears to be the only one available. After a full day of time travel, with Moreta exhausted and Holth old and exhausted, they go between, and don't make it back at all.
I was so shocked and sad at Moreta's passing, as were everybody. Orlith's plight was even worse. Normally a dragon would go between to die after losing a rider, but her eggs take precedence, so that she must remain in agony to protect them until they are ready for Impression. On the day of Impression, Orlith and Holth's rider Leri disappear from Pern forever, too.
I would have liked to see the outcome of Telgar Weyr's isolationist attitude. Not only did they insult Moreta and the other dragonriders, they were directly responsible for Moreta's death, because they would not send riders out to distribute the vaccine. Moreta's story is not concerned with the aftermath of that, as it occurs (presumably) after Orlith's babies hatch. Perhaps that will be told in Nerilka's Story, which appears to take place concurrently with this story; I hope it extends a little bit later in the timeline.
There were a lot of casual references to what occurs in the future, and I am sure the state of the world during the Ninth Pass is directly related to what happens here. The plague reduced Ruatha Hold to nothing, and although they appear to start rebuilding, after two more Passes it is in the tattered state we see in Dragonflight. There is no mention of runner beasts in the Dragonriders trilogy, at least not an obvious one, so it appears that the plague took its toll on them, so that in the far future they are not so widely bet upon in races. There is mention of how much knowledge is being lost, as Master Tradesmen died and so many other people full of experience of how to do things. Knowledge of time travel is lost to the Dragonriders by the Eighth Pass, and the source of the plague explains why people are so afraid of the Southern Continent in the future.
I just love this author's style. She keeps it interesting, and the characters are always doing something useful, which keeps the plot moving, whether it is a forbidden love story, a medical crisis, or a festival. There isn't a dull moment in the book. I am not sure what the author means by saying in the forward that this is probably not the book that fans wished she would write. But I think it was a great story. It did not have the novelty of Dragonflight, or the tragic sacrifice of Dragonquest, but it had a sad sacrifice of its own, and it was extremely well-driven, with great characters. That is all I can ask for in a book.
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