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Flying with Dragons

Dragons, time travel, female protagonist. Really, Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey for February’s Geek Girl Book Club appeared to have all the hallmarks of awesome. In fact, having read about people’s love of McCaffrey and the excitement in the club over reading the book, I wanted desperately to love this book. I did. I really, really, really did. And yet….the “yet” is what I keep coming back to.

Dragonflight caused, for me, what I like to think of as the “Clockwork Orange” problem. The older I get, the lazier a reader I become. In college, I attempted A Clockwork Orange. After all, it’s a classic. My former attempted hipster self saw it as a rite of passage. I waited until summer break, cracked open the cover, and… like wow. Nope. The language, while I can appreciate it being a literary classic for its formulation of its own language, did me in. In many ways, I feel the same way about Dragonflight. The Kindle edition, in the book’s defense, does not clearly link to the glossary at the end of the book so I didn’t realize it was there until I had finished plowing through the book. While much of the words, such as “turn” being a Pernese year, were able to be figured out by context, the glossary might have been useful earlier on. For me, the use of language – both created and syntactic – caused the majority of my issues with the book.

In the literary sense, this use of language and creation of a vernacular known to the characters because they reside in a different world from our reality is something I can appreciate. However, the use of this language never felt comfortable on my eyes or in my brain. Often, the language interrupted the flow of the story. Some of the words, instead of flowing with the story, felt forced to make the world distinct from our own. For example, specifically, “turn” and “weyr” appeared to be created specifically to remove the reader from a sense of the comfortable but had little need for names of their own. A “turn” is a Pernese year; however, how this would be different from an Earth year is not clearly explained so the word appears superfluous. In the same way, a “Weyr” is a place where dragons and their riders live while a “weyr” is a cave where dragons live. Weyr of the proper noun makes sense. It is a place, separate countries even, specific to the book and add to the understanding of the mythology. A weyr in the common noun sense, appears superfluous since “cave” would work equally well. It is this use of language that removes the reader from the world McCaffrey creates in a way that disrupts the flow of reading and becoming immersed in this world.

Similarly, McCaffrey often leaves an ambiguity to the mental visuals that creates a sense of removal from, instead of immersion in, her world. Threads, nearest I could image, fall from the sky looking like…well…string. Apparently, they’re dangerous and destructive. The book spends a solid portion of time discussing the Pernese fear of Threads. However, even when they finally appear in the story, they are described by their ultimate destruction – harming riders or destroying plant life – instead of having a clear mental picture of being “in” the attack. Picturing the battle scenes, my sole sense was of chaos but not of how that chaos was endured. Characters discussed the pain or the destruction. They told us that the Threads fell and that people were burned. However, even in the thick of the battle or in the aftermath, the sense of what the battle looked like, smelled like, or sounded like seemed so ambiguous as to keep the reader from being transported into the world itself.

The greatest works of fiction take the reader into a new world – even if it is a world with which the reader has a tangible experience. Harry Potter, for example, creates worlds within a reality. Unlike McCaffrey, Rowling spends time detailing the world such that the Hogwarts castle is clear in the reader’s mind even with its moving staircases or enchanted ceiling. Godric’s Hollow, as depicted in Book 7, is visited in the middle of winter creating the sense of bleakness of the town. The plaque in front of the Potter’s house is described as having graffiti and giving enough specific details to allow the reader to imagine how it looks while simultaneously having enough ambiguity to give the reader ownership over his/her mental image. This is the hallmark of creating a believable world in which the reader can immerse him/herself. McCaffrey’s writing lacks this kind of detail that would give the reader the ability to connect with an unknown world while simultaneously feeling that the mind has imagined it. By not giving the reader enough sense of the world itself, McCaffrey’s writing tends to pull the reader from the scene she has created and the world becomes letters on a page instead of transporting the reader into her imagination and vision.

Syntactically, McCaffrey’s writing continually felt as though it was trying to give a sense of historical place but it often comes out as stilted and forced. For example, in describing Benden through F’lar’s eyes, McCaffrey writes,

“As they reached the huge natural cavern that had been his since Mnementh achieved maturity, F’lar looked about him with eyes fresh from his first prolonged absence from the Weyr. The huge chamber was unquestionably larger than most of the halls he had visited in Fax’s procession. Those halls were intended as gathering places for men, not the habitations of dragons.” (Kindle Location 923-928)

Here is the issue with the syntax. Although McCaffrey might have been attempting to engage the reader in a faux 18th century syntax, the reading becomes unnatural. “Mnementh achieved maturity” reads as though it is intended to be an old time, perhaps even vaguely pre-Victorian sounding way of saying “came of age.” However, maturity is not really “achieved” since achieved implies working hard to accomplish something. Dragons or people grow and age naturally. Either a being matures or dies; it is the natural course of life. The word choice creates a hyperbolic syntax that attempts a sense of the formality of the characters’ speech pattern. The main problem is that the word choice and implications cause an internal disconnect while reading that removes the reader from the world instead of immersing the reader linguistically in a created time and space. Perhaps, although it reads awkwardly, the phrase “as gathering places for men” achieves this goal of formality to create a sense of faux historical location using language. Writing of the 17th and 18th centuries feels overly formal to modern day readers. Therefore, this protracted way of saying “meeting hall” attempts to create that sense. While the phrasing still feels awkward and forced, at least the concept seems to work better.

The problem, perhaps, comes when this formality is interspersed with a more informal syntax. If the syntactic structure continued throughout the story consistently, this perhaps would be more involving. However, in the same “scene” McCaffrey writes, “He tossed several garments at her feet and a bag of sweetsand, gesturing to the hanging that obscured the way to the bath” (Kindle Location 929-934). Here, the first half of the sentence changes in syntax from the second half. “Tossed”, while easily understood as a casual throw, removes the reader from the formality that the rest of the sentence implies with its awkwardly, attempted formal phrasing of “the way to the bath.” Although one could easily imagine Jane Austen writing the phrase, “the way to the bath,” the use of tossed in this sense takes the reader out of the attempted time frame. A better phrase might have been “several garments sailed lightly toward her from his hands”. This overly wordy phrasing reads awkwardly but remains within the same genre of hyperbolic writing as “the way to the bath.” McCaffrey uses these long phrases and outdated wordings to create a sense of time and place – a time removed from the modern day with little modern technology. While this works in some cases, the sporadic modernizing of the language continually yanks the reader, subconsciously, from the world she attempts to create. This style loses the reader not because it is difficult or awkward to read but because its inconsistencies draw the reader in and out of the modern day making the writing appear more forced than natural and more pretentious than creative.

For a fantasy novel to succeed, it must engage the reader, immerse the reader, and transport the reader. While plot and characters remain important in any novel, in a fantasy novel much of the goal is to create a new world in which the reader wants to live. Plot and action matter, as they do in all novels, but in a work of fantasy they become slightly more tangential than the creation of the new world is. Where Dragonflight failed, for me, was where it became not a world in which to live but words existing solely on the page. To create a truly great work, the author must find a literary portal through which the reader enters a new world. This world must be one that surrounds the reader in imagination, color, and vibrancy. Books are world unto themselves in which readers engage in experiences they cannot have in their own lives. In this case, I wanted to fly with dragons not read simply about dragons flying.

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