Originally appearing in the third volume of our Quarterly Almanac, Where to Start with the Pern Series is the part of an ongoing series of essays detailing where one can start with any number of SFF/popgeekery topics. For this round, we asked Nicole Brinkley to talk about the beloved Pern series. Enjoy!
Where to Start With The Pern Series by Nicole Brinkley
People read Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series for different reasons. Its sprawling universe of over twenty books, its incredible cast of characters, and its dragons—oh, its dragons!—have attracted a legion of fans over the years. But before we start talking about where to start with the Pern series, there is something you should know: Pern is problematic.
There are no excuses for Pern’s problematic elements, though there are many influences and reasons for them. Her work begins with, and subsequently has to overcome, worldbuilding laced with rape culture and homophobia prevalent in popular genre fiction of the 60s.
If that is something you know you can’t read past, stop here. There’s plenty of other sci-fi to delve into—I highly recommend These Broken Stars, where authors Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner pay incredible homage to the writing style and worldbuilding of McCaffrey within the text while stripping away the problematic elements of her sort of worldbuilding. (Kaufman and Spooner, incidentally, met in an online forum while sharing their love of the Pern series and have been friends ever since.) But if you can muscle past the problematic elements of the Pern series, you’ll find a series you won’t soon forget.
Like many fans, my affection for the series is tainted by nostalgia. I found the series in middle school, back when Eragon had instilled in me a love of dragons that no book series could satisfy. After stumbling across the third book in the series in our school library, I discovered a treasure trove of the books in my own garage, heirlooms of my father’s that had been waiting for me since he passed away. I devoured the entire series from the box he’d left behind, every book I could get my hands on – and buying new copies of the books so often read that they’d fallen into pieces.
My nostalgia and sentimentality does not take away, however, from the incredible wealth of world that McCaffrey created. Not everything makes sense—the same 60s mentality that infuses her world with rape culture and homophobia gives her some impossible science, which puts her books squarely in the “science fantasy” category—but the characters and the dragons (mostly, if you’re me, the dragons) make the entire series worth devouring from beginning to end and over again.
The Pern series takes place on the world of, you guessed it, Pern—a place populated by dragons who can bond to humans (called “Impressing”) while an organism called Thread falls from space and consumes any part of the earth it can touch, forcing the dragonriders of Pern to band together to fight it. There are over twenty books set in the Pern universe while I write this, which include novellas and guides to the world itself. (Casual fans can completely ignore the guides; if you become as obsessed with the series as I am, though, the Dragonlover’s Guide to Pern is incredibly useful and includes a recipe for klah, the Pern equivalent of coffee.) But that means pulling up a list of the books will only give you a headache, and looking at the stack of Pern books in your average bookstore gives you no useful pointers.
So where do you start?
Among the Pern fans, there’s much controversy about the “right” way to read the series. After all, the series spans dozens of books and covers hundreds of years of the Pern timeline. Some argue that reading chronologically is the best way to read the series, and in a way, it makes sense: start at the book that brings us to the beginning of the Pern universe (Dragonsdawn) and watch it unfold. (If this is a reading order that interests you, a simple search online will unearth multiple Pern websites with the complete list of books in chronological order. I find pern.srellim.org particularly useful.) But the McCaffreys—as Anne’s son Todd later took over writing the series, first co-authoring some books with her before penning completely original works—write under the assumption that fans coming into the book have some sort of general idea of the universe. You could start reading in the First Pass of the world, but unless you’ve been introduced to the world where the series begins in the Ninth Pass, the way the world works and the characters interact might go over your head.
But reading the Pern series in order of publication doesn’t quite work. Some of McCaffrey’s smaller Pern stories, which are published during the early run of the series, really take away from the flow of the first few novels—after all, you don’t need to go hunt down “The Smallest Dragonboy” in McCaffrey’s Get Off The Unicorn short story collection or go back and read a novella about a side character named Nerilka while the heart of the world of Pern has yet to be discovered.
Instead, I suggest following what I call the heart of the Pern series: the stories of Lessa, Jaxom, and Menolly.
That means you’ll begin with Dragonflight, the book that made McCaffrey the first woman to ever win a Hugo award. Dragonflight follows Lessa, who is brought to Benden Weyr to try and Impress a Queen dragon. When Thread begins falling for the first time in hundreds of years, it’s up to Lessa to figure out why—and how to stop it. Dragonflight is the strangest book of the Pern series, as it started as a series of novellas that were bound together to create the book. McCaffrey retcons much of the worldbuilding in Dragonflight as the series goes on, as it was never intended to become a sprawling series, with the most notable change being that dragon hatchings become substantially less violent.
There are self-contained mini-series within the Pern series as a whole; Dragonflight marks the first book in that first mini-series. It’s followed by Dragonquest, where Lessa takes a backseat to her friends Brekke and F’nor. Dragonquest is followed by The white Dragon, about a boy named Jaxon who appears earlier in the series.
The second mini-series is the Harper Hall series, which begins with Dragonsong. Dragonsong follows Menolly, a girl who wants nothing more than to become a Harper, or a musician, but things change when she accidentally Impresses nine miniature dragons. Dragonsong and its sequel Dragonsinger overlap with Dragonquest and The white Dragon in both the chronological world of Pern and the publication order of the books. (The third book in the Harper Hall series, Dragondrums, follows a boy named Piemur and is a book I find dull compared to its predecessors, but is worth reading for world context.)
Though McCaffrey published other books after those, I recommend jumping straight to All the Weyrs of Pern, which picks up where Dragondrums and The white Dragon leave off and merge the stories of Menolly, Jaxom, and Lessa. To me, those seven books are the heart of the Pern series and everything else is a pleasant bonus to save for when you already love the books.
From there, you can jump back in time to Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern (and its novella companion Nerilka’s Story) and The Masterharper of Pern, the two Pern series set in the past I find most interesting due to the characters they follow. Moreta follows one of the legendary Queen riders of Pern, while The Masterharper of Pern follows Robinton, a character you interact with through all seven of the previous books.
That’s the order I would follow, should you want to read the heart of the series: Dragonflight, Dragonquest, Dragonsong, Dragonsinger, The white Dragon, and All The Weyrs Of Pern, with the rest of the books as bonus for those who really fall for the series.
If you’re looking for where to start, this is it: with the characters you’ll end up loving most.
Nicole Brinkley has short hair and loves dragons. The rest changes without notice. She is the editor of YA Interrobang, a site dedicated to young adult literature, and an independent bookseller. Follow her on Twitter at @nebrinkley
Collecting original short fiction, essays, reviews, and reprints from diverse and powerful voices in speculative fiction, THE BOOK SMUGGLERS’ QUARTERLY ALMANAC is essential for any SFF fan.
IN THIS VOLUME (JANUARY 2017): BECKY CHAMBERS, SHERRI L. SMITH, A.E. ASH, KATHERINE MACLEAN, NIGEL QUINLAN, ZETTA ELLIOTT, ALLIAH/VIC, KATE C. HALL, NICOLE BRINKLEY, ANA GRILO AND THEA JAMES
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