(Edited for a few repetition/deletion errors and to aid readability. Also added a footnote.)
Some of you may recall that there was a new Pern book published back in 2018, just in time for the 50th anniversary of the series, according to the dust jacket. I finally got around to reading it, and...
It's not good, friends. I'm not mad, you must understand, but I am so disappointed.
Spoilers ahead, I suppose, though if you've read the first three mainline novels and the Harper Hall trilogy you already know everything of importance anyway. If you haven't, spoilers for those, too, particularly The White Dragon.
See, this book attempts to fill in what Piemur was up to between the end of Dragondrums and when he meets up with Jaxom in The White Dragon. His character arc is about figuring out who he is and what his purpose is now that he's lost his young singing voice and doesn't know if his mature voice will settle into anything worthwhile. (Musical pedagogy has come such a long way, but never mind.)
Have you spotted the problem with this? Did you say "Hey, wait, wasn't that his character arc in Dragondrums?" If so, yeah, you're exactly right. I really don't remember ever getting the impression that Piemur was unsatisfied with his lot down in the Southern Continent at the end of DDrums. In fact, I remember him being generally self-assured, even a bit of a cocky rascal, and happy in the end to be on special service for Master Robinton.
That Piemur is nowhere to be found in this book. The one we get in DCode is right back to being mopey about his voice and feeling displaced and without an identity because of it. He's also not happy about spying on the Oldtimers, because they're still dragonriders and it's Just Not Right. Never mind that everyone in Southern Weyr is a disaffected rabble-rouser who refused to accept that, in this century, holders and crafters are people, too, and forfeited what respect they were once owed as soon as they upped stakes and followed the chief instigators south. And Piemur knows how bad the worst of them are; among other things, if I'm not much mistaken,* he witnessed them stealing stuff from honest folk first-hand in DDrums. I just don't buy it.
Naturally, he comes to terms with himself by the end, and there's a super-dramatic moment when he finally sings again and realizes everything is fine, and oh, by the way, his singing voice isn't what he's staking his identity on anymore anyway. So that's a whole lot of angst for nothing.
But let's talk some more about the Oldtimers, because what they get up to is one of a couple of plots in the book. At the beginning, Piemur gets wind that they're planning what readers of the series already know is the theft of Ramoth's queen egg. In The White Dragon, all we know about this is that Piemur told Robinton that the Oldtimers were acting strange and seemed to be up to something, but Robinton didn't quite put the pieces together in the right order in time. Fair enough. That's almost what happens here, but with an added dose of drama due to Piemur having sunstroke (I think) while he's trying to explain what he's seen and heard, so Robinton doesn't even take him seriously. I call BS on that. Granted, I'm a Robinton fangirl and I'm biased, but look, this is a classic case of making an intelligent character act stupid for the sake of giving the protagonist a (weak) justification for feeling hard done-by so he can rebel. Plus, Sebell (the journeyman Robinton is grooming to be the next Masterharper) DOES take Piemur seriously. So how come Sebell doesn't say something?
Bah, I'm getting off track. Oldtimers. In The White Dragon, it's pretty clearly implied that the whole Southern contingent is complicit in the theft of the egg. They're all in the same pickle, which is more or less that the females are too old to mate, and the males that aren't too old themselves are horny, and it's driving everyone bonkers. Their genius plan to breathe life into everyone again is to steal themselves a new gold queen, and they get to stick it to the people they hate the most in the process. They're resentful, they're bitter, and they're not too smart, unless they wanted all-out war on themselves. Fortunately, it doesn't come to that thanks to the intervention of Jaxom and Ruth, not to mention Master Robinton talking the Weyrleaders of Benden out of retaliating against Southern for the theft of the egg at the cost of his own good relationship with them.
DCode attempts to put a new spin on these events by making it so that it's only a small cabal of extra-dissident dissidents down in Southern who dreamed up the plot to steal the egg; the rest aren't at fault. Plus, we should feel sorry for them, because half the riders and dragons are sick from inhaling a bunch of crud while trying to dig up firestone on their own, which they don't know how to do properly. Plus, Piemur now relates to them because he gets what it's like to feel like you don't belong anywhere. Lo, I shed a single tear for the people who went into exile because they couldn't be bothered to treat miners (among others) like critical allies rather than servants.
Piemur doesn't have a direct impact on this plotline, though. Instead, we learn that the egg cabal are connected to another group of troublemakers in Nabol Hold, and Piemur spends a bunch of time up there trying to work out what they're up to, which turns out to be a plan to assassinate Jaxom and parcel out Ruatha Hold among the Nabolese who were promised land by the previous lord of Nabol, who totally screwed them over and left them with zilch. I'm pretty sure we did more or less this same plot in The Renegades of Pern? But, y'know, obviously they fail, so I couldn't get invested in it at all. Piemur and friends save the day, Jaxom is safe, whatever.
Sebell gets badly hurt in the adventure, though. This results in a couple of extremely tedious chapters of him and Piemur chilling with Piemur's family up in Crom Hold. Piemur has revelations about his identity, and there are a couple of speeches about Sebell not wanting revenge on the men who hurt him because it wouldn't solve anything and he'd rather they be given a chance to make better choices in the future. The thing is, I'd buy this from Sebell, protege of Robinton, known for being fair-minded to a fault. It's not a bad moral—in fact, it's one I can get behind 100%. It's just that it gets hammered down my throat repeatedly until Piemur finally connects the lesson back to the Oldtimers.
I'm sorry, did you think we were done with them? Haha, no. See, Piemur decides that his calling in life is to be their advocate! They're still in hiding out of shame, we're told, over the actions of the egg cabal. So Piemur gets help finding them, and has a whole big speech, and convinces them to come back and try living in polite society again.
Oh, and he finds out there's a cure for their illness, too, it's just that the root the cure is made from only grows in Nabol, and the name mutated over the centuries, and none of the Oldtimers—including the healer actually from Nabol—ever thought that maybe assuming it doesn't exist anymore without even looking for it themselves was unconscionably stupid. Okay, I've dinged them for a lack of intelligence myself, but surely there are limits!
My feelings about this, as Phobos will tell you if you ask, can be accurately rendered as Uuuuuuurrrrrrgh.
... I haven't even started on all the little things that annoyed the crud out of me. Does anyone else remember runnerbeasts having six legs, for example? That was news to me. And, since when is the Harper Hall directly connected to Fort Hold? Since when is Silvina the Headwoman of Fort Hold? Since when does Fort Hold have a tunnel you can just jog through to reach Fort Weyr pretty quickly? Why the hell does N'ton, Weyrleader of Fort, spend so much time personally carting Piemur hither and yon? I'll buy Piemur getting called "Pie," especially by the woman who raised him, but when was Menolly ever called "Lolly" or "Loll" by goddamn anyone? Why does the author insist on everyone calling everyone else by name every other bloody line?
Oh, and I almost forgot that Piemur gets more Gary Stu points by winding up a-dragonback in the middle of a Threadfall at one point. It's the period when Thread is falling erratically, so I don't mind the dragon he's riding at the time emerging from between to find a Fall about to start. I DO mind that, when the rest of Fort Weyr shows up to fight, the rider doesn't get someone to cover his position for a few seconds so he can drop the civilian on the ground somewhere safe. No, no, Piemur hangs around for the whole thing. He somehow doesn't die, and he somehow isn't a huge hindrance to the dragon and rider he's with. The only real impact of this is to bring the plot to a screeching halt. There are several scenes like this throughout.
I'm sure there's stuff I'm forgetting.
But there were things I liked, too! Like I said, I can get behind the message about giving people who've gotten a bad deal in life the chance to change rather than kicking them when they're down. I liked exploring the few new things we got here, like Skal's brewhouse (known for its cider) and the cothold where Piemur's family lives. It was even nice seeing some minor characters, like Slightly-More-Reasonable!Oldtimer B'naj, getting some screen time (though his brown dragon is mistakenly described as blue a couple times; siiigh).
It's just that I really would've liked more from a new Pern book than a clumsily paced rehash of character arcs and world events I already knew about with noticeable alterations to familiar people and places on top. I didn't get more. I'm so disappointed.
Sigh. Maybe I'll have to stop being so hard on Todd and give his books another chance.
* ETA: I was not mistaken. That happened. In fact, Piemur witnessed Oldtimers being jerks to miners specifically. The same people who would have gladly supplied them with firestone if they hadn't alienated absolutely everyone with their unrepentant abuse of the common folk. The irony hurts almost as much as the character derangement.