Cordelia’s Honor, Lois McMaster Bujold

cordelias_honourCordelia’s Honor, Lois McMaster Bujold (1996)
Review by Megan AM

I really wanted to love these two novels, just so I could identify with the legions of Lois McMaster Bujold fans who buoy her consistent status as the second-most nominated, and second-most winning, author of Hugo Best Novel Awards.

But, alas, I remain unimpressed. I’m sorry, Bujold fans. Once again, I am just not cool enough to fit in with the in-crowd.

Bujold advises Vorkosigan newbies to begin the series with Shards of Honor (1986) and Barrayar (1991), which is sometimes combined into the 1996 omnibus Cordelia’s Honor. This advice goes against publication order, but both novels center on Cordelia Naismith, the mother of the great Miles Vorkosigan, the protagonist of other books in Bujold’s series. Cordelia’s stories act as an introduction to the world of Barrayaran politics, and provide a non-spoilery background for the uninitiated.

Shards of Honor is the better of the two novels, at least at first. Best described as adventure-romance, it explains the circumstances behind the unlikely romance of independent off-worlder Cordelia and her future husband, military and political powerhouse Lord Aral Vorkosigan. Abandoned by a military coup, enemy captain Vorkosigan takes Cordelia as his hostage and they trek across an unfamiliar planet toward his hidden cache of resources, towing along Cordelia’s severely injured subordinate (ugh, this poor sod). Vorkosigan schemes his way back onto his ship, and Cordelia’s prisoner-like status evolves, causing Cordelia to question her loyalty to her own planet. Warring and scheming bring the two together again, and they fall in love!

The Good: It begins with an exciting and imaginative romp across an unexplored planet, which brings us flying, blood-sucking jellyfish, and six-legged scavenger beasts.

The Bad: It gets a little Twilighty in the second half when Cordy gets a bad case of Conduct Disorder and practically drowns her therapist, manipulates a naive newsman, and hijacks a postal rocket… just to get to the man she loves. Not only is this behavior obsessive and codependent (ie, bad for feminism), but it is inconsistent with the character’s established behavior.

The Ugly: A terribly uncomfortable, and seemingly unnecessary, group rape/torture attempt occurs somewhere in the middle of the book. (Shame on you, Bujold, for falling on this trite plot device.) In fact, it seems every major character in Shards of Honor and Barrayar has some dark, sexually abused past, as if that’s the only method Bujold knows to add depth to her characters.

Barrayar
In Barrayar, Cordelia and Aral are married, and Aral is named Regent to the child Emperor of Barrayar. Cordelia finds herself estranged from her surroundings, no longer a celebrated captain, and stuck as a bored and pregnant housewife on an unfriendly planet. She befriends some new characters, and dips her toe into the strange, unwritten customs of Barrayaran society. At the same time, Aral’s controversial appointment attracts violence, Cordelia’s pregnancy is threatened, and their relationship is tested by another coup.

The Good: Ummm, this half of the omnibus won the 1992 Hugo Award… somehow.

The Bad: The story’s structure hinges primarily on contrived, cliched scenes, such as going into labor in the middle of a street battle. Awkward, expository dialogue is used to explain the knotty political maneuverings on Barrayar.

The Ugly: Heroine Cordelia comes off as selfish and impetuous as she manipulates her staff to risk their jobs, their lives, and Vorkosigan’s attempts at peace, in order to rescue her unborn, high-risk fetus, while neglecting the status of other innocent hostages imprisoned in the same building.

The Unexplained: I can’t quite grasp Barrayaran technology. The Time of Isolation is over. They have rocket ships, they jump wormholes, they fight with pulse stunners. So why do they still behead criminals with axes? Shouldn’t they have lightsabers, or something?

Reading trumps TV and movie viewing because it affords us the luxury of exploring characters’ internal thoughts and motives, but that’s not the case with the Vorkosigan series. Bujold cheapens the reading experience by sacrificing perceptive, insightful narration for back-and-forth, expository dialogue. Shards of Honor and Barrayar is just a lot of standing around and talking, which might make a good television, but it robs the novel of any emotional and psychological depth.

Despite the many, many weaknesses of these two novels, both Shards of Honor and Barrayar have moments of exciting storytelling, and some readers may be able to overlook the lazy technique and selfish protagonist. This is best recommended for SF readers who lean politically Right, where Cordelia’s religious and pro-life philosophies can be appreciated.

This review originally appeared on From couch to moon.

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The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula K Le Guin

The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula K Le Guin (1971)latheofheaven
Review by Megan AM

One of the most radical, yet unradical, ways of thinking.

Fundamentally paradoxical, yet still, fundamental.

Both the thesis and antithesis for change.

(One of most difficult concepts to teach to a classroom of 9th graders scratching themselves in their uniforms on that one day of the year when state-mandated teaching objectives cross into the territory of “Eastern Philosophy.”)

The Tao. The Way.

George Orr is the embodiment of The Way.

In The Lathe of Heaven, George Orr visits a therapist to deal with his lifelong problem of affecting reality with his dreams, what he calls “effective dreaming”. But when the landscape of reality starts changing, steady Orr is not sure he can trust the ambitious Dr. Haber with his powerful mind. Can a passive, compliant person like Orr take back control of his dreams, and reset the world?

The dualism of personality, symbolized in the style of a PKD novel.

But, really, a celebration of a particular personality.

At first, it may seem like a tale about two undesirable opposites, vain wit versus witless passivity. Le Guin pulls no punches with her quarry, the arrogant therapist Dr. Haber, who was “no being, only layers” [81], and who “was not… really sure that anyone else existed, and wanted to prove they did by helping them” (p 28)

(Ouch, says the woman who practices the same profession.)

But Le Guin also drops a few judgmental remarks on her protagonist Orr, who is “unaggressive, placid, milquetoast…” (p 7), and “meek, mild, stuttering” (p 42). George Orr is “like a block of wood not carved” (p 96).

But it turns out Le Guin likes blocks of wood. And so does Lao Tzu:

The way goes on forever nameless.
Uncut wood, nothing important,
yet nobody under heaven
dare try to carve it.

[“Sacred Power,” Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way by Ursula Le Guin, p. 48]

In the notes of her demystified translation of the Tao Te Ching (2009), Le Guin expounds on that “block of wood”:

Uncut wood – here likened to the human soul—the uncut, unearned, unshaped, unpolished, native, natural stuff is better than anything that can be made out of it. Anything done to it deforms and lessens it. Its potentiality is infinite. Its uses are trivial. (p 83)

Not an attack on the passive personality. This is the celebration, perhaps exploration, of one. A personification of The Tao.

There’s other good stuff, too. Le Guin, as always, is funny, with “enhuging” and “enreddenhuged” being only two examples of hilarious attempts at short and concise, Tao-like humor. She also addresses vainglorious ambition, the expert pretense of therapy, Orwellian dystopia, PKD-style wibble-wobble of dreaming, interracial relationships, the gray tedium of an ethnic melting pot, among other things.

But The Lathe of Heaven also arouses curiosity about Le Guin’s lifelong relationship to Taoism. A woman who tells it like it is, who dissects books with an unforgiving blade, who unleashes snappy comebacks at fellow authors, and who turns humble acceptance speeches into defiant criticism. Ursula Le Guin is no George Orr.

But The Lathe of Heaven is a lot like The Tao.

Simple. Short. Sweet. Funny.

Mystical and whole.

Like the stanzas of a Tao verse.

This review originally appeared on From couch to moon.

The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin

the-dispossessedThe Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin (1974)
Review by Megan AM

This 1975 Hugo Award winner is probably the most literary bit of SF I’ve read all year. I’ve never read Le Guin before, but Jo Walton’s Among Others referenced her quite a bit, and made me eager to try her out. I’m glad I did.

Le Guin’s writing is beautiful. Nearly every page, especially for the first half of the novel, contains brilliant observations about the human condition, written in delicate language usually reserved only for high literature. This isn’t sci-fi. This is Literature with a big “L”.

It’s Literature that happens to be about a brilliant alien physicist who lives on an anarchist planet that was settled 180 years prior. As he works to discover a unifying Theory of Time, he finds his ideas stifled by the customs and needs of his anarchist community. He opts to continue his work on a neighboring planet, the planet of origin of his people, where capitalism and militarism reign, and where his work becomes threatened by the possibility of state ownership. This is a story about the tyranny of society, regardless of its legal and political system (or lack thereof), and the strength of the individual in combating that tyranny.

The story is secondary to the backdrop, which is why the second half of the novel dragged. I was much more intrigued by the first half, during which the world-building and philosophizing took place. However, as the worlds of Annares and Urras developed, the story unfolded and I found myself less eager to continue reading. Despite that, it was a beautiful book, and I would recommend it to anyone. Regardless of its vintage publication date, the themes and problems in The Dispossessed are easily transferable to modern times, and it doesn’t read like cheesy ’60’s/’70’s SF. This is a thinking person’s SF novel. Get out your highlighter.

Some quotes:

“A scientist can pretend that his work isn’t himself, it’s merely the impersonal truth. An artist can’t hide behind the truth. He can’t hide anywhere.”

“Nothing said in words ever came out quite even. Things in words got twisted and ran together, instead of staying straight and fitting together.”

“There’s a point, around the age of twenty, when you have to choose whether to be like everybody else the rest of your life, or to make a virtue of your peculiarities.”

“Fulfillment, Shevek thought, is a function of time. The search for pleasure is circular, repetitive, atemporal, The variety seeking of the spectator, the thrill hunter, the sexually promiscuous, always ends in the same place. It has an end. It comes to the end and has to start over. It is not a journey and return, but a closed cycle, a locked room, a cell.”

Enjoy!

This review originally appeared on From couch to moon.

The Female Man, Joanna Russ

thefemalemanThe Female Man, Joanna Russ (1975)
Review by Megan AM

“Everyone knows that much as women want to be scientists and engineers, they want foremost to be womanly companions to men (what?) and caretakers of childhood; everyone knows that a large part of a woman’s identity inheres in the style of her attractiveness.”

“Laura is daydreaming that she’s Genghis Khan.” (p 60)

Joanna Russ’s 1975 turbulent treatise on female oppression, The Female Man, begs for interaction from the reader. It taunts with its candor. Even as a forty-year-old book, it dares you to disagree. For the modern reader of this not-really-tale, side effects may include chest tightening “buts”, understanding “ohs”, and flustered “oh come ons”.

In a recent article with ShelfAwareness.com, Kim Stanley Robinson describes Russ’s The Female Man as the “book that made me laugh the hardest while slapping me in the face”. He couldn’t be more precise.

The lives of four women collide: the uber-feminine doormat Jeannine, the rough-and-tumble person Janet, the agro-reactionary murderer Jael, and the rational, scholarly Joanna, our dear author, who communicates her own internal arguments and confusions via these four women. On the face of it, the women are presented as coming from four alternate worlds, but one infers quickly that the characters are non-entities, and that Russ is essentially arguing with herself, and with society, via these personalities. She conveys a divided female psyche that despises the status quo, yearns for gender equality, yet doesn’t want to annoy people, and feels guilty for achieving her own version of equality by essentially giving up her femininity in the academic world.

Four women. Four J names. Different facets of Russ. Different facets of womanhood. Sometimes the narrator refers to “the Weak One” and we don’t know who that is. Is it Jeannine, the young and naïve girly girl, who wants ever so much to get married, but for some reason she won’t? But she’s the quickest to accept and justify violence.

Uncertainties like that define the relative amorphousness of this novel. Its structure is as fractured as the author’s identity, with chapters ranging in length from one sentence to one paragraph to ten pages. Storylines bounce to and fro, interrupted by personal statements, poems, anecdotes, and uncomfortable revelations about self and society.

This is a book of harsh truths, stylized in biting, provocative, funny ways:

In 1975, Russ reminds us, “There are more whooping cranes in the United States of America than there are women in Congress.” (p 61)

She takes on marriage: “You can’t imbibe someone’s success by fucking them” (p 65).

She discusses social conditioning:

There is the vanity training, the obedience training, the self-effacement training, the deference training, the dependency training, the passivity training, the rivalry training, the stupidity training, the placation training. How am I to put this together with my human life, my intellectual life, my solitude, my transcendence, my brains, and my fearful, fearful ambition? …You can’t unite woman and human any more than you can unite matter and anti-matter… (p 151)

She posits a world without men by introducing Janet, from Whileaway, which is ten centuries ahead in an alternate future, where men have been long ago wiped out by way of disease: “And about this men thing, you must remember that to me they are a particularly foreign species; one can make love with a dog, yes?” (p 33)

Russ’s witty cantankerousness is hard to put down, even if some of her references feel outdated to younger readers. Her portrayal of a typical party includes inane social chatter that illuminates the patronizing gender games people play (“His Little Girl” and “Ain’t It Awful”), which seems ridiculous to this late-born Gen-Xer, who hopes no one still talks that way today. It’s hard to believe people ever talked that way.

Even if some of her portrayals might not quite mesh with today, enough truths bubble up to make this a relevant and influential discourse on gender relations. The majority of women I encounter still view marriage as a goal and career, their identities exist through their kids, and the career gap is still gaping.

But most compelling about this novel is the intimacy Russ shares. She splays out her soul, a psychic vivisection for the world to see. Blood pumping, heart beating, eyes agape, and mouth roaring. Sometimes it’s too much and we feel embarrassed for her. Its cringe-inducing roughness is a little too roar-full. Younger generations like myself may balk at the more extreme portrayals of casual sexism, or find this mid-century roaring tiresome. (Women of my generation don’t roar. We death-stare. Much more effective.) Most surprising for me is realizing that this was written only four years before I was born. I was born into this society???

But even if society has progressed beyond the immobile social roles of Russ’s generation, and even if younger generations can’t completely relate to the society Russ depicts, The Female Man still gives us kernels of familiar insidiousness that peek out from the corners. Today, social media has allowed us to see more brash displays of dangerous misogyny, but it’s the subtle sexism that’s most overlooked, and easiest to ignore. Russ reminds us of those places where our standards have been calloused, where our vigilance has waned.

Although The Female Man is a product of its time, we are not quite living in its desired legacy. This should be required reading for all. We should never become comfortable enough to allow this novel to be forgotten.

This review originally appeard on From couch to moon.

Mirror Dance, Lois McMaster Bujold

mirror_danceMirror Dance, Lois McMaster Bujold (1994)
Review by Megan AM

With clones and diplomatic intrigue muddling up the Vorkosigan lifestyle, yet again, another adventure takes Miles out of the picture. Instead of our normal Vorkosigan friends, Mirror Dance offers a unique point-of-view, that of an intruder, giving fans, and detractors, a new perspective on this wealthy Barrayaran family

A series with character, as in strictly character driven, with things happening and things to be accomplished, Mirror Dance belongs somewhere in the early middle of this lengthy series that revolves around members of the same noble family. The Vorkosigan series reminds me of a dollhouse where the fashionable and wealthy characters leave their mansions each day, and drive their expensive, powerful cars (or starships), to run errands and have adventures. Maybe someone gets kidnapped, or deals with a bad guy, or sinks into quicksand… I’m pretty sure I played out these plots with my dolls as a little girl. (Though my dolls did more dressing up than hijacking of rocket ships, but they were pretty adventurous.)

In this episode, Miles’ doppelgänger, Mark, the genetic clone brother who was originally created for the infiltration and destruction of the Vorkosigan family, tricks Miles’ mercenaries into aiding in the rescue of other clones held on Jackson’s Whole. Miles finds out, but before he can put a stop to the violent conflict that follows, he is killed by a grenade. His body is cryogenically frozen for future medical attention, but then lost in space in the chaos of battle. Despite this, the Vorkosigans accept Mark into their home, but Mark feels responsible for the loss of his hated clone/brother/enemy, and his investigative actions result in his own imprisonment and subsequent torture.

But, like the adventures of Barbie and Ken, it’s always going to work out for Miles and his lot, and there is always the same root, the same hearth, the same heart to which they return. But unlike Barbie and Ken, the Vorkosigan charisma and fortitude might be entertaining and inspiring enough to distract from the aristocratic glaze of this elite Barrayaran family.

Mirror Dance is the most enjoyable of the four to five Vorkosigans I’ve read so far. It may be that I am finally indoctrinated into the series, though I suspect Mark’s outsider perspective has more to do with it. (And, let’s get real, a 100% audio run might have helped, too.) Like me, Mark is critical of this family of rich privilege, (although he acclimates quickly enough), and his observations better match my own suspicion of this self-righteous-but-not-enough-to-really-upset-the-status-quo family. Is Mark’s POV just a byproduct of his circumstance, or a hint of Bujold’s self-awareness?

Although Mark (and I) might be critical of this family, it’s clear that fans of this series find comfort in this kind of steadiness. But don’t get too comfortable, comfort readers. Mark’s creation story, which might be covered at more length in a different installment, involves manipulation, programming, torture, and rape. (The thing is, it seems like every Vorkosigan character of importance is raped, or very close to it. It is a primary factor for plot and/or character development in this series. Personality hinges, or perhaps, unhinges, on rape, particularly among the male characters.)

To demonstrate Mark’s consequential developmental and intimacy disorders, Bujold has him sexually assault a ten-year-old clone girl with breast implants, with no consequence because, after all, she’s just a clone. (Not Bujold’s thinking, of course, but a demonstration of the inhumanity of this future space culture – although we don’t really need such a drastic lesson since the narrative tells us as much because, in this series, so much is told.) During his imprisonment after Miles’ death and disappearance, Mark is raped, force fed, raped some more, manipulated to rape, maim, and kill. He copes by splitting his psyche into separate personalities who enjoy each vice: Grunt, Gorge, Howl, Killer. These are not graphic scenes, merely hinted at, but unpleasant all the same. But Mark survives, the bad guys are defeated, and Mark goes home and shakes it off like a wet dog.

This is common with the Vorkosigans. While there is struggle, change, even development, there is no depth, no transformation, no real threat. Change happens, sometimes hard change (loss, dementia, aging, death), but character revolution won’t. I’ve seen these folks at the beginning and at their most recent, and they are always recognizable, familiar – the most likely explanation for this series’ oft-criticized success. Readers come to this series to embrace their old friends, and fill in narrative gaps.

Series like this are, in essence, just like a dollhouse: the flexible, resilient framework combined with foundational permanence, the character stability, the episodic nature, and the à la carte entry points (you can sample the series at any point, a revolving narrative, whereas space opera tends to recommend strict linearity), not to mention the family focus, the extravagant wealth, and the relative ease for characters (even in the face of tragedy), brings to mind this analogy, and I think that’s why this series appeals to so many fans. Once you know the characters and the open floor plan, you can walk up to this structure at any time, get out the characters, and start a new adventure. Both a strength and a weakness, depending on what kind of reader you are.

For a series reader wanting comfort, welcome home.

For me, it just isn’t my bag, and a few other nagging things don’t help. The torture and tragedy never grip me. I wince at the words, but they form sentences, not experiences. Also, Bujold likes to rely on old clichés (“with friends like these” and “gut feeling like a bad case of indigestion” are two that come to mind) rather than delight us with fresh writerly quips. And, as usual, “bemused”, gets abused, both in rate of use and definitional misuse. (I understand “bemused” as “baffled and confused”, though she tends to use it as “slightly amused”, though it’s sometimes difficult to choose through context clues, which is why it is so frustrating because the difference between the two can screw with a character’s point-of-view. Boo.)

But what I like, and what I think really captures the fans, is the motivational-spoiler effect that happens when publication order does not synchronize with narrative order. Lots of foreshadowing, lots of aft-shadowing – it fosters curiosity about the future and past of these characters, no matter what order you decide to read. And for a series that is strictly character driven, that seems to be the key.

This review originally appeared on From couch to moon.

The Long Tomorrow, Leigh Brackett

thelongtomorrowThe Long Tomorrow, Leigh Brackett (1955)
Review by Megan AM

Len Colter sat in the shade under the wall of the horse barn, eating pone and sweet butter and contemplating a sin. (p 7)

That’s a killer first line. And now I want some cornbread.

With its bucolic setting and unsophisticated characters, as well as some rambunctious river moments with two growing boys, it’s as though The Long Tomorrow invites the tradition of Mark Twain into the realm of SF, supporting the success of Ray Bradbury’s nostalgia stories and setting the stage for Clifford Simak’s pastoral entreaties for peace in the following decade. (Yes, I know Twain wrote sci-fi. I saw that episode of Next Gen, too.)

An excellent example of a post-WWII attempt at post-apocalyptic fiction, a tradition that has endured and endured and endured. I often wonder if, after we finally suffer the apocalypse that humanity seems to crave, will we then sit around the campfire telling gripping stories about copy machines, fast food tacos, and skyscrapers.

Of course we will. But in The Long Tomorrow, Brackett explores that same question.

Some eighty years after nuclear war, humanity’s survivors subsist in pastoral communities ruled by religious sects, while a federal law forbids the establishment of cities. Len and Esau, teenagers of the New Mennonites of Piper’s Run, fantasize about the cities of the past, with their metal skyscrapers, electric lights, and automobiles. When the punishments for their technological transgressions go too far, the boys decide to break free of their stifling community in search of the mythical Bartorstown, where technology and science are celebrated and preserved.

Brackett is better known for her screenwriting career, with credits on popular hardboiled crime movies and some involvement in The Empire Strikes Back, and even most of her own bibliography is crime and space opera stuff. The Long Tomorrow is an unusual piece in the Brackett oeuvre, though many consider it to be her best. Whatever the state of her other novels, this is an excellent place to start.

Extremely readable and thematically immense, The Long Tomorrow tugs on the worries of a post-war world, a planet sitting on its own atomic power while two superpowers wobble in a precarious balance. This coming-of-age tale about Len and Esau mirrors the loss of innocence of post-WWII nations, where mid-20th citizens grapple with the consequences of the pursuit of knowledge and technology, while mid-20th nations grapple with each other. Len and Esau want to know things. They’re fearful, but warnings of danger don’t stop them.

Could you give up all the mystery and wonder of the world? Could you never see it, and never want to see it? Could you stop the waiting, hoping eagerness to hear a voice from nowhere, out of a little square box? (p 42)

The boys dance a precarious dance, both experiencing a spectrum of convictions, but never at the same time, constantly in flux with one another. Constantly in a bid to outdo and overpower one another. They blame each other for their uncomfortable pursuits. They are never in harmony.

Len. Esau. Lenin. USA. I know it’s the wrong time and conflict for Lenin, but maybe? Just because “Stal” is a crappy name? And maybe “Nik” is too obvious. (I searched around to see if someone else noticed this, and came up empty. So maybe I’m stretching. Me? Stretching? Never!)

But as much as this taps into the current events of the time, this is no study in polemics. Brackett explores the arc along with the reader, and questions are left to drift in the post-nuclear wind. Is knowledge worth the sacrifice of blissful ignorance? When the boys finally get their wish, their skins practically crawl with fear when confronted with certain technologies. Maybe ignorance sounds good again. But, can one ever return to ignorance? (Think on this before you judge the ending.)

Of the flaws, the women are thin in character and agency (read: annoying), typical for fifties SF, but surprising to see from a female author. We do get people of color, a tiny bit, but the one Hispanic is an alcoholic, and Len can’t help noticing the beautiful white skin of the (assumed to be) Native American daughter. This thinness does, however, lend some validity to the product-of-their-time apologists (myself included). The fifties just sucked for women and POCs, even in imaginary tales, even when written by women.

But, it’s remarkable how much Brackett packs in to this 200-page novel based on themes of Cold War social tensions, the risk of knowledge, the power of individuality, and socio-psychological conditioning. She explores post-apocalyptic power structures, the roles of religion in times of fear, and the manifestations of oppression in various societies. The tale feels literary as Brackett experiments with structure and foreshadowing. Her protagonists are developed, not just as agents of the narrative like many early SF characters, but as independent personalities. Len and Esau change and grow, sometimes in unpredictable ways that only make sense upon reexamination.

I’m happy to have found such a satisfying piece of fifties SF with Leigh Brackett. Nothing I’ve read from the fifties comes close to this level of sophistication.

Recommended for readers who want to read fifties SF, but can’t stand the stilted prose.

Recommended for readers looking for proof that women have been writing SF for a long time, and doing it well (better).

Recommended for readers who want to like Bradbury, but think he’s too heavy-handed with the metaphors.

Recommended for readers who love their post-apocalyptic fiction on the soft side.

This review originally appeared on From couch to moon.

Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern, Anne McCaffrey

moretaMoreta: Dragonlady of Pern, Anne McCaffrey (1983)
Review by Megan AM

As a kid who devoured Nancy Drew and Baby-sitters Club novels, then Kurt Vonnegut and Marion Zimmer Bradley as a teen, I can’t quite place where Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series would go on the recommended reads for child development chart. Its style and content seem ideal for the ages 3 to 7 crowd, yet there are some sexy moments that seem a little too sophisticated for young kiddos. But I’m not sure an older child or young teen would buy the whole space-dragon on a medieval future world premise. I know I wouldn’t have.

Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern is the prequel to McCaffrey’s extensive Dragonrider series, which serves to explain the legendary tale of the famous dragonrider, Moreta, who is often referenced in the earlier-published, but later-occurring novels. Moreta is a dragonrider/dragonhealer/weyrleader who lived 1000 years prior to the events of the first published Pern novel. Little is known about her because the Pernese suck at recording history (they do this on purpose, sometimes), but her adventures and tragedies are immortalized in song and poetry. Basically, it’s a story about a story from the story.

So what do you do when your people settle a planet and abandon all mechanized technology, only to discover your new planet is bombarded by sizzling thread every 100 turns? You genetically-engineer dragons to combat the thread, and (quietly) discover time travel via said dragons. Obviously. And everything works out perfectly until… FLU PANDEMIC!

Moreta and her golden queen dragon, Orlith, are eagerly awaiting the end of the current thread cycle, eight years away. Both are in the prime of their lives and their careers, important to their weyr community and throughout Pern. They go to a gathering at Ruatha Hold, and Moreta enjoys racing and dancing with the hot Lord Holder Alessan. But when a runner and a rider fall mysteriously ill, Pern is faced with a problem that dragonriding can’t solve. Moreta is swept into the crisis as her Weyrleader Sh’gall and Masterhealer Capiam become bedridden, and many of Pern’s holds are wiped out by the virus. Moreta must use her skills as a rider, a dragonhealer, and a leader to stop the crisis… all while Orlith is pregnant with Pern’s most important clutch of eggs!

Although Pern is praised for its undercurrents of feminism, the first two novels in the series didn’t meet my expectations, mostly due to Pern’s paternal feudal society led by grumbling male Weyrleaders and Lord Holders, a vain female side character, and only one standout female lead who breaks all the rules, yet remains the exception. By Moreta, seven books into the series, that feminism is well-established, giving the Weyrwoman unquestioned authority and independence, including freedom of sexual relations without implications, even within a Weyr partnership in which her dragon chooses a mate whose rider does not appeal to Moreta. Her relaxed attitude toward relationships demonstrates an overt criticism of the possessive nature of romance in our society.

McCaffrey’s version of motherhood is also rather progressive, even by today’s standards. Moreta has had an unaccounted for number of children with several different men, all of whom are fostered to other weyrs and holds, yet she is neither viewed as a slut, nor as a neglectful mother. It can be assumed based on an interaction with one of her children that the relationships between Moreta and her fostered children are warm and loving, with no bitterness about the situation. The Pernese idea of child-rearing is almost more like the crèche style exhibited in other SF novels, where the community raises the children, allowing parents more time and energy to devote to their skills and personal development. In Pern, however, this option seems to be only available to the very important dragonladies – elitist in nature, but very unique, especially in a society that seems backward in so many other ways (feudalism, atavism, etc.)

Despite Moreta’s inhuman feats of dragonriding, followed by dragonhealing, followed by time-jumping to collect the ingredients for a vaccine, followed by more time-jumping to vaccinate the entire planet within the incubation window, the story feels rather insubstantial. Considering the impact of a major pandemic, the emotionality of so many deaths is not conveyed well. After all, it is a children’s book, and the pacing matches a child’s imagination and comprehension. Even fans of the series complain of the book’s lackluster plot, seemingly wedged into the series when McCaffrey ran out of fresh ideas but publishing pressures forced her to mine her own work. I was bored, to the point where I desperately hoped someone important would die – I often do this – forgetting that this is a story about a legend.

Legends always have a tragic end. And THAT’S when this book gets good!

This review originally appeared on From couch to moon.