It is always an interesting experience to go back and read a book that one has fond memories of. Human nature being what it is, the change in perspective—expectation, interest, value, etc.—are elements of the experience that undergo transformations visible only after an indeterminate period of time has passed. Reading The Jungle Book as a youth is a vastly different experience as an adult—and who is to say which is better? Such books delightfully flexible, able to adjust to changes in age and perspective, there are others which remain static, however, and limited to a time when simple was good enough. Anne McCaffrey’s 1968 Dragonflight is one of these books.
What young person wouldn’t want to have their own pet dragon to ride through the clouds and time—a telepathically linked pair that uplift one another with every wing beat of flight? Such is the fairy tale base of Dragonflight, and the myriad of spin-off fiction McCaffrey, and eventually her son Todd, have published in the setting. Set on a faraway planet where castles and holds, swords and honor are the norm, the novel is centered on the young woman Lessa. Beginning the story as a drudge in a castle oppressed by the evil Fax, she, in conjunction with the visiting patrol of handsome, sensitive dragonmen, resolve matters for the region in revolutionary style. In the process, her skills as a telepath are discovered by the handsome, sensitive dragonmen, and they take her away to their sky hold where she is to be tried and tested as queen of the dragons. Though having a fiery personality earth-side, does she pass the test sky-side when facing a trembling, cracking egg with a baby dragon inside? The reader will have to find out.
Actually, the reader will already know. Dragonflight is candy-sweet fantasy of science fictional/fairy tale proportions, and nothing is a surprise. Princesses, EVIL, pet dragons, knights—err, dragonmen—in shining armor, time travel, and on and on. What more could a young girl want living within a fantasy realm? Appealing to this common denominator, the appeal beyond remains unequivocal.
The weak points of Dragonflight are numerous, and I almost feel bad describing them as it will undoubtedly undermine the innocence of the story. But… The prose is unrefined. Over-burdened with adjectives, often of the decorative, redundant variety, the book’s style is in a vein similar to Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories. That is point one. That emotion resonates merely at a juvenile level is the second. Most often forced, Lessa’s feelings must be accepted as presented, that is, rather than indirectly extracted by the reader via the manner in which the narrative is presented. Celia Friedman would later copy this mode of telling, i.e. cramming character emotion in through the omniscient narrator’s voice rather than showing through behavior, action, or subtle inner monologue. The third is that the plot is as contrived as can be. It’s almost as if McCaffrey went and bought a little princess kit and a science fantasy playbook and started wedging them together. The number of plot twists can not be counted: they simply don’t exist. Everything unravels exactly as the reader expects. The time travel motif, for example, rather than being handled with due caution, becomes like a finger in sand: a tool so easily manipulated that the heroine can get from point A to point B without limitation of any kind. McCaffrey in no way challenges herself, or the reader. Instead of writing a story that has actual tension based on the confines of the scene(s), everything flows oh-so-coincidentally—magically—together. The evil is thwarted, the nice, kind dragon loves you and lets you ride it through the skies, the prince is in your arms, and everything is happily ever after, just like a fairy tale.
In the end, Dragonflight is a novel adults will have trouble relating to meaningfully if it’s the first time they’ve read it. If you are a teenager, however, the book may interest; those who read it as youths may be more tolerant of the overly-simplistic storyline, weak, unpolished prose, thin characterization, heavily contrived plotting, and polarized morals (the evil is EVIL and the good is pretty pink with a bow on top) when re-reading as an adult. For a better look at pet dragons, try The Neverending Story. For a planetary adventure with tight plotting, better represented dragons, warring holds, more convincing alien invaders, and an unpredictable storyline, try Jack Vance’s The Dragon Masters. It’s too pulp, but at least salty rather than candy-sweet.