The steep fall in the quality of the PERN series can’t be laid solely at the feet of Anne McCaffrey’s son Todd McCaffrey, as Anne’s later books in the series themselves widely varied in quality, ranging from downright bad (a few) to mediocre/adequate (most) to not-great-but-pretty-good (a few). But at least one could kind of justify the existence of most of them, as they wrapped up characters we’d grown to love, or gave us the backstory of how the whole setup began, or kept us in the familiar and beloved setting but gave us new situations. But since Todd began co-writing the books with his mother, and later writing them on his own, it isn’t just the quality of the books that’s questionable but their very reason for being. The simple fact is we’ve seen these types of characters and these specific plots too many times and the books have suffered from a major lack of originality, along with a pretty big drop-off in writing craft (at least in comparison to the first seven or eight).
Those same problems bedevil the most recent Pern book, Dragongirl, which is why I can’t recommend it. In terms of plot, there’s just nothing new here: undermanned dragonfighters urgently fighting thread against the odds, dragons fighting off a plague, use of “timing,” mating flights, a character who can talk to all dragons, a character feeling her way into a position of authority, hatchings and impressions, dragonriders mourning their dead dragon, etc. We’ve seen all of this in nearly every book, and the few issues that don’t arise in every book (plague), we’ve now seen in three or four at least. Do we really need to see any of this again?
Even worse, not only is the book as a whole repetitive within the series, but the individual scenes in the book are maddeningly repetitive within its own limited scope. Multiple scenes with the same conversation about how there aren’t enough dragons, multiple scenes with people doing math to figure out there aren’t enough dragons (yes, math scenes), multiple scenes worrying over the number of eggs in a clutch, discussing records, and so on.
Beyond the issues with unoriginal and repetitive plotting, the writing simply isn’t very good. Scenes seldom feel full enough or smoothly integrated, but instead read like a bunch of mostly perfunctory plot points one after the other. The book is probably 97 percent dialogue, but the dialogue is far from crisp, compelling or sparkling and too often falls into cliché. The many, many discussions on “timing” just bog the book down — it’s rarely a great idea to have a concept that characters are constantly confused about as a major topic of conversation throughout a book. The prose is adequate at its best moments and just bad at its worst. (It’s best to simply avoid the poetry.) Characters have little depth and most are pale shadows of characters we’ve seen before; to be honest, I simply didn’t care what happened to any of them.
Unfortunately, Dragongirl resolves some matters but leaves others hanging, ending not quite in a cliffhanger but at a point requiring a follow-up book. Personally, I hope it’s the last; it’s well past time to put Pern to rest.