Having grown up reading high fantasy novels, I came to have a deep love of author-drawn maps, glossaries of elvish terms, and character lists that included the names of dragons, queens, princes, wizards and the boy who worked in the castle kitchens and didn’t know he was a hero in the making.
But, there was one familiar component of fantasy novels that I regularly scorned – the prologue. After all, who wants to read an entire pre-history of a world/land/kingdom before the voice of the main character speaks? Or, if a single event or action was so vitally important to the story, I wondered, why doesn’t it happen, or why don’t we find out about it, in the actual story? I admit that, sometimes, if the prologue was only a couple of pages long and not titled Prologue, I was, in fact, tricked into reading it. Say, for example, the title on the page read Kingdom of Maron, Year of the Conquest, and then, in the voice of the old king’s servant, told (in eight paragraphs) how he smuggled the baby princess out of the castle during the attack of the evil forces and left her with two kind old women in a cabin, in a little village, on the far edge of the forest–just before he was killed by a marauding band of sorcerers. Then, on the very next page, the title read Kingdom of Maron, Sixteen Years After the Conquest, and the real story actually began with the now sixteen-year-old princess-who-doesn’t-know-she-is-a-princess-but-I-know-she-is-the-princess wondering why she was so different from everyone else in the village….
Needless to say, I avoided prologues whenever possible. Which leads me to the point of this post–my confession of how I once mistook a fantastic science fiction series for a fantastic fantasy series.
The series was The Dragonriders of Pern, by Anne McCaffrey. The novels each begin with a looooooonnnngggg prologue about a sun and the planets around it, and orbits and blah, blah, blah. I skipped right to the lovely maps and glossaries and cast of characters and immersed myself in what I thought was one of the most original fantasy novels I had ever read. There was a new world with dragons that bonded with riders and could disappear and reappear at will. They protected the villages of weavers and fishermen and farmers and miners and music-playing harpers from an evil (Thread) that fell from the sky and devoured all living things. There were no machines or computers in this land, just a kind of non-religious early middle ages society. I LOVED the Pern books and devoured every one. The original trilogy, the Harper Hall trilogy, the story of Moreta’s Ride…and then came Dragonsdawn…and wait, what?!
I discovered my error. Dragonsdawn told the story of the original colonists who came to Pern in a SPACESHIP. How they hadn’t known about the biological organism – Thread – that existed on a nearby planet and fell on Pern when the orbits of the two planets came close enough. How they used genetic manipulation of an indigenous species – fire lizards – to create the sentient dragons that could bond with humans and fight the threat of Thread.
I couldn’t believe it. I felt like an absolute idiot. Suddenly, so many details in the “fantasy” storyline shifted and made an entirely different kind of “science fiction” sense.
And, readers, because of that incident, although I still doubt the need for most prologues, I now read them all – long, short, pointless, lengthy, or predictable.