Dragonsinger by Anne McCaffrey

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Rating 8.9/10
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Some books we read are indelibly associated with the time and place in which we first read them. However often we may reread them in the future, we still cannot quite rid ourselves of the memories of where we were and what we were doing first time around. Thus, when rereading Dragonsinger, I cannot quite forget being nineteen, approaching the end of my very first term at university, panicking about essay deadlines and whether my work was good enough whilst tentatively attending a few end of year social engagements, hoping people were actually accepting me as a friend rather than just tolerating me.

This likely affected my view of Dragonsinger, both because I’d read through many of the Pern books as a teenager, and thus felt I probably ought to move on to something else; a somewhat paradoxical attitude I admit for a recent Harry Potter convert, and also because so much of the story reflected how I was feeling myself at the time that reading it was hardly a break from my situation.

So revisiting Dragonsinger not quite half a lifetime later, it’s nice to finally be able to give the book the attention it deserves, and also admit that nineteen year old me was just as wrong in dismissing Dragonsinger as fluffy light entertainment as I was about my imagined inadequacies at university.

Before going on, bear in mind in this review I will be discussing Dragonsong and Dragonquest spoilers.

Dragonsinger picks up almost the second that Dragonsong ended, indeed I wouldn’t be surprised if McCaffrey had written the two books in tandem. Despite the sexist attitude of her parents, fifteen year old Menolly has been brought to the Harper craft hall by Master Harper Robinton where she has the chance to follow her dream of studying music. Though Robinton is nothing but positive about the prospect of Pern’s first female harper, Menolly’s home of half circle sea hold isn’t the only place where she will encounter prejudice, not the least because she arrives at the harper hall with nine fire lizards in toe, smaller cousins to the thread fighting dragons and the envy of everyone on Pern. Menolly will have to learn to associate with people again after her long exile living in the wild, carve out a place for herself and come to understand the duties of a harper, whilst making new friends and new enemies, writing new songs and of course making sure that nine active fire lizards don’t cause to much of a rumpus along the way.

I will admit, I was not impressed by the first scene of Dragonsinger. An exhausted Menolly is chivvied off to bed by the motherly Silvina, head woman of the harper hall, her feet and wounded hand still causing her pain. Dragonsong had already seen Menolly going through some pretty horrible experiences and recovering, and in Dragonsinger I was hoping we’d finally see Menolly get a chance to shine, yet immediately we seem to be heading back into old territory (not the least because Silvina was almost a carbon copy of Felena from Dragonsong).

Of course, writing of characters being cared for and recovering after horrible experiences can be genuinely heart-warming, however too much of this and the characters themselves start to feel a bit too much like dolls, objects to whom good is done rather than people whose fate we can be concerned about, especially if they happen to be female.

I needn’t have worried. McCaffery implies in Dragonsong that Menolly was unusually gifted at music, particularly in composition. It is here however, comparing Menolly’s skills to those of trained musicians in an environment specifically designed to test musical ability that we really get an idea of how good Menolly is. Whatever issues I might have had with some of McCaffery’s characterisation in the past I can only applaud her presentation of Menolly as a truly three dimensional character. Menolly is naturally shy around people and (after the treatment at half circle), understandably modest about her musical abilities. Yet at the same time, music is what she loves, and whether tangling with the complexities of formal and complex compositions, the exacting demands of vocal training, or even the mechanics of instrument design, seeing Menolly’s love of music blossom with sympathetic teachers is genuinely wonderful.

Yet, since Menolly is a fifteen year old introvert, she is prone to get things wrong, misunderstand those around her and leap to dire conclusions; especially when it comes to the artistic personalities of the various music masters. Indeed, it is interesting that in Menolly McCaffrey avoids so many of the things that have become conventions for a teenaged character, such as fits of self-obsession or Hormone drenched romance (which would’ve been deeply inappropriate given that the book takes place only over one week), and so makes Menolly both far more real, and far more likable.

Speaking of masters, McCaffrey’s own background in music definitely shows through. From the composition master Domick who has little patience for anyone less intelligent than he is, to the hilariously theatrical voice master Shonagar whose sense of his own importance is only matched by his obsession about vocal performance (a trait of voice teachers I’ve encountered myself), McCaffrey’s supporting characters here are colourful in the extreme. Even those elements who dislike Menolly on sight such as the crusty old theoretician Morshal or the power hungry house mother Dunca have a believably petty nastiness to them.

Indeed, to say this is a book about a distant planet where people psychically bond with dragons to burn alien parasites from the sky, I can only applaud McCaffrey’s pacing and sense of absolute reality here.

The competing demands of different masters, the need to enter lodgings whilst trying to dodge the ire of unpleasant residents, even the sudden friendship groups and anticipations of social events where you try and fit in, despite being an outsider in a pre-existing community, all these feel like very familiar experiences.

Then again, just as you might be forgiven for thinking that this is essentially a fairly basic, if extremely well put together school story, Menolly’s nine unruly fire lizards are always ready to swoop in and cause chaos, whether through impressing the learning disabled Camo (Pern’s answer to Hodor), or, take sudden, clawed Umbridge at anyone they perceive as possibly being a threat to Menolly; even when no threat was intended. Indeed, balancing Menolly’s practical need to care for nine active fire lizards whilst trying to fit in at the harper hall makes for an interesting contrast.

There are also tentative links to Dragonquest, with one minor subplot concerning Menolly having to understand that Robinton intends more for the harper’s guild than just playing music, and that her songs and her fire lizards might have other uses than just entertainment, though for the most part the politics is kept under the surface.

Also, unlike Dragonsong, though we do get a view of one particular event from Dragonquest, the view we get is new, startling and amazingly horrific and reminds us that even if Menolly seems to be finding her place on Pern, the flesh-eating thread is still not far away.

Speaking of Pern, just as Dragonsong gave us a far more practical idea of what hold life was like, the portrait of Pern as a living breathing world continues, indeed the way McCaffrey is able to both expand our knowledge of Pern’s recreation and economics, and yet have us laugh at the wheeling and dealing antics of Menolly’s friend the impish apprentice Piemur is absolutely masterful.

Of course the book is not perfect. There were some aspects of world building which showed a slight bias on McCaffery’s part.

For example, all harpers seemed to study guitar, voice, percussion, harp and pipes, and yet we get little theoretical study of either the harp or pipes and only minimally of the guitar, despite the fact that playing any instrument definitely has its level of complexity (pipes certainly included), and most people do not usually specialise in four or five instruments at once.

I can accept that Menolly, as a prodigy probably would be multi skilled, but I’m not sure all harpers would be.

Then again, McCaffrey’s own experiences in vocal training do create a wonderfully realistic portrait of what having voice lessons is like (Menolly’s description of aching back muscles and how strenuous singer’s breathing exercises can be was certainly very familiar to me as a classical tenor myself.

More seriously, a lot of antagonism in the book comes from several high ranking girls such as the catty Pona who study at the harper hall, though only to a minimal level and certainly not with any intention of qualifying formally as members of the harper’s guild. I can accept that music is likely seen on Pern (as it often was in the past in Britain), as a Decorous accomplishment for young ladies, however this does not square with Menolly’s parents beliefs that music was unfeminine.

Of course, this attitude might have been unique to half circle sea hold, or to Menolly’s parents specifically, but given that they thought having a musician for a daughter would “disgrace the hold” this seems a bit incongruous.

Similarly, if indeed high born ladies were already regularly studying at the harper hall, did none of them have any musical ability before Menolly that might have suggested they were guild material?

There is a hint that this practice of taking paying female students was a new thing , though given the conservatively feminine attitudes of Pona and most of the other girls, they hardly seemed to be the type to be bucking tradition.

Then again none of these were matters that actually bothered me whilst reading. Since Menolly’s experiences are so immediate, I was more than ready to accept Pona as the quintessential mean girl she was and her possible position relative to the traditions of Pern never occurred to me until later.

Speaking of feminine attitudes, I did appreciate the fact that for the most part, the male music masters and apprentices at the harper hall were more concerned with Menolly’s musical acumen and her fire lizards than her gender, indeed mostly Menolly’s gender isn’t an issue unless someone (male or female), happens to make it one. Indeed, I am impressed with McCaffrey’s ability to write a book heavily concerned with gender equality without ever becoming strident or preachy, and her recognition that even in the medieval society on Pern, attitudes might be more nuanced than just the evil oppressive men denying opportunities to the poor downtrodden women.

One other minor problem I had with Dragonsinger, is that some characters are slightly onenote, especially the less than likable ones. For characters like Pona and Dunca this makes sense, since generally someone who shows that level of nastiness rarely changes , however for other characters it was a little disappointing.

Silvina is pretty much nothing but a brusque and kindly surrogate mother to Menolly throughout the book. Of course, as the “head woman” and therefore chief organiser of all domestic arrangements, it’s likely the job by its nature calls upon someone with a certain personality type, still it would’ve been nice if Silvina could’ve shown another side to herself. Indeed, there is an implication that Silvina was a musician too, and I’m sorry we didn’t see her demonstrate her own musical talents, which would have also made for an interesting kinship between her and Menolly.

All that being said, Menolly is still the central focus here, and her journey from scared outsider to accepted part of the harper hall is a truly compelling one with an absolutely awesome conclusion, even if the main conflicts here were entirely in Menolly’s head and with the attitudes of those she encounters.

Whilst McCaffrey’s style remains workmanlike and somewhat stark, at the same time the rich details, complex characters and absolute sense of the world, quite aside from the extremely likable protagonist made for a fascinating experience.

All in all, Dragonsinger makes me remember why I devoured so many of the Dragonriders books as a teenager with its realistic characters and sharp details of daily life on Pern. It’s odd, while it’s probably the most intimate and enclosed of all the Pern books, Dragonsinger also is the clearest impression we’ve got of Pern so far, and the closest we’ve felt to the people who live there.

If you love music, the antics of small dragons and seeing likable characters triumph despite adversity, Dragonsinger is heartily recommended.

This Dragonsinger book review was written by

All reviews for: Harper Hall Trilogy

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