Dragonsong by Anne McCaffrey

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Rating 8.6/10
Everything is better with musical accompaniment

You might be wondering why, given my less than glowing reviews of the first two Dragonriders books I remember this series so fondly.

The best answer I can give is to point to Dragonsong. McCaffrey apparently was hard at work on the sequel to Dragonquest in the mid-seventies, when an editor asked her to put together a book which might encourage more young female readers to science fiction. So, McCaffrey put aside the political byplay and macro world views to tell a rather more simple story set on Pern, the story of a young girl trying to pursue her passion for music despite the prejudices of those around her and the ill will of her family, a story which marks a turning point in how the Pern books were written, introduces one of the most beloved characters to the saga, and turned out to have a wide ranging appeal far beyond its target audience.

Taking place chronologically at the same time as Dragonquest, Dragonsong follows fifteen year old Menolly, a girl from the small and comparatively out of the way Half Circle Sea Hold. Menolly has a gift for both composing and performing music and a beautiful singing voice, gifts which brought her to the attention of Half Circle’s harper, the aged Petiron. On Pern however, women are not permitted to join the harper guild or perform music and so Menolly’s father, the stern lord holder Yanus fears that a girl performing music in his hold would bring disgrace on him.

Where previously the Pern series had followed a wider perspective, skipping around many meetings and featuring a lot of byplay between characters (some of whom got lost in the mix), Dragonsong is a far more focused story. Menolly provides us not only a more immediate perspective, but also an extremely different, and far more human view of Pern, and what life in a hold, especially such a conservative one as Half Circle might be like.

It’s odd, Lessa began Dragonflight as a drudge (literally a slave), and though Lessa nominally had a worse life than Menolly, her constant pride and scheming never made her an easy character to like which lessened the impact of how hard Lessa’s life actually was. Indeed, it’s interesting that here McCaffrey backs off from the more medieval Pern she showed in Dragonflight, a world with concubines and bloody battles, and yet gives us a far more realistic portrait of a stifling society where people’s positions and duties are rigidly defined by custom and lore.

It is this sense of realism which makes Menolly’s frustration at the dull round of household tasks that makes up her life far more immediate and far more compelling to read about than Lessa’s diffuse sense of family honour and entitlement. Similarly Menolly’s ambition to perform and compose music is far more easy to sympathise with (especially if you’re a musician yourself), than Lessa’s desire for vengeance.

Likely because the book was intended for a younger audience, McCaffrey doesn’t show too much violence or unpleasantness towards Menolly, though as with much of her writing a lot can be inferred from a little, for example on the occasion when Yanus beats Menolly when he finds her improvising to a tune she speaks of assuming “the accustomed position” bending over a stool as though beatings were a frequent occurrence, and some of the lies, deceptions, and constant bitchy comments from her family are down right nasty.

McCaffrey also depicts the effects of Menolly’s isolation in ways which are accurately unsentimental, such as the fact she has literally no sense of humour, or her belief that as a tall, awkward girl she is both unattractive and no good at anything besides music, indeed there is a subtle irony in the fact that during her time in the hold Menolly believes herself intrinsically unskilled at feminine tasks such as gathering edible plants, skinning animals, making poultices and salves from local materials or mending clothes, yet when later Menolly finds herself lost in the wilderness, it is her very adeptness at these skills that lets her survive.

This makes Menolly quite a refreshing contrast to the modern ranger archetype, and indeed heroes of YA novels like Katniss, since it’s interesting to see a shy, wounded but indomitable girl skilled in woodlands survival, rather than instantly assuming that being able to survive in the wild makes someone a hard case. Not that Menolly is an insipid character either, but in some ways her quiet determination against adversity is even more appealing than a wise cracking go getter. It's also interesting that McCaffrey realized that in a less than technological society, work traditionally allotted to women wouldn’t have been the unskilled genteel labour of the Victorian and early modern era, but would’ve included a good deal of basic survival training as well, which again is why Menolly makes a very appealing example of a strong female protagonist, since it's nice to see a woman in a gender traditional society who manages to be a strong character whilst wielding a guitar and a needle and thread, rather than a battle axe.

It’s not just in the creation of her principle character and the depiction of her world that McCaffrey’s style had progressed and matured. The plot clips on at a good pace for the most part, and McCaffrey’s sentence structure and language are far more grounded here, something else which contributes markedly to the immediate sense of Pern as a living breathing world (there is a nauseatingly accurate description of Menolly gutting fish which made me want to wash my hands afterwards), and the book’s few moments of action or physical danger all revolve around the natural disaster of alien flesh eating threads falling from the sky.

Of course this wouldn’t be a Pern novel if dragons did not put in an appearance, although here we mainly see more of the fire lizards, smaller less intelligent cousins to the dragons. It’s Menolly’s meeting with fire lizards that first gives her the courage to leave the oppressive atmosphere of her hold and strike out on her own. As usual, the fire lizards are beautifully drawn, indeed where they were something of an aside in Dragonquest, here we get to see them in all their glory, particularly their unique personalities and habits in the wild.

All this being said, the book does have its flaws. Though McCaffrey’s pointed descriptions of Menolly’s life in Half Circle Sea hold let us infer plenty about her unhappiness, and directly experience a little of her mistreatment, the fact that we rarely see Menolly interact with anyone other than her shrewish mother, implacably conservative father and spoiled, catty sister means that we get something of a one-sided picture. We’re told that one of Menolly’s brothers is fond of her, and we get to see him later, yet it seems odd that she didn’t go to him at least for emotional support, even if he wasn’t willing to go against the will of her father and lord holder.

Similarly, while it is the death of Menolly’s teacher, the old harper Petiron that begins the novel on a sombre note, the one flashback we get of Menolly’s interactions with Petiron paints him as brusque and impatient, quite at odds to the kindly figure we’re told about in overall narration, indeed McCaffrey’s one stylistic issue here is perhaps that she doesn’t balance general narrative recounts of Menolly’s feelings of a situation with enough by way of actual flashbacks, good or bad.

The really major problem with the hold though, is that often we’re told what the “hold folk” are feeling or doing, but rarely is this in evidence. For example, after Petiron’s death even Yanus is forced to allow Menolly to teach the children the teaching ballads as there is nobody in the hold who can do so, yet later nobody seems to object to either Yanus mistreatment of Menolly, or even the fact she’s no longer entertaining the hold with her music. More problematically, when she leaves the hold, nobody bothers to search for her at all, it's just assumed either she died in thread fall or will come back later.

This is particularly strange given that the new harper, the decent and forward thinking Algion is actively searching for Menolly, and McCaffrey’s rather hand waved explanation that Yanis and Menolly’s mother Mavi were actively keeping all word of Menolly from the harper seems a bit hard to believe, especially given that Menolly was supposedly a favourite of at least some of the hold folk with her singing.

I also wish that we’d been able to see some of Menolly’s interactions with the hold’s children, indeed while again we’re told in narration she was a good teacher, it is rather strange that McCaffrey shows us some disasters Menolly has looking after ill-tempered older relations, and yet none of her triumphs with the children. By the same token it would also have been nice to experience even a small sample of Menolly’s performance, since seeing a usually reticent character in a sphere where they are competent is always welcome, and though of course we get to see a great deal of Menolly and her music in future books, it would’ve made a nice contrast here.

My other problem in the book is that of digression. Though much of the plot is driven by lies and misinformation and several divergences, such as the friendship between Menolly’s brother Alemmi and harper Algion highlight these lies, some other digressions seemed a little superfluous. For example, Menolly winds up at Bendon Weyr and witnesses several vital events from Dragonquest which we’d already seen. While seeing these events from another perspective was interesting, at the same time, in such a short book I was a little impatient at having to follow Brekke and Jaxom and would much rather have stuck with Menolly’s story, or at least, stayed with her reactions to the events she see rather than have them narrated more universally. Admittedly, this might be because in some sense Dragonsong was perhaps partly intended as a jumping off point for the series for people who hadn’t read quest and flight (apparently it was my lady’s first Pern book), though even so, given the book’s short length (less than six hours), these digressions still felt a little unnecessary to me. It was also slightly unfortunate that some aspects of Dragonquest, such as the potential political ramifications of the fire lizards or why Lessa was so eager to find fire lizard eggs to distribute among leading Pern citizens might be slightly unclear, likely why McCaffrey herself advocated reading Dragonsong after Quest.

All that being said, having Menolly in Bendon Weyr did let us get a new spin on many of the characters from Dragonquest we’d previously seen. Lessa appeared as a tiny, wrathful force of nature, while many supporting figures such as weyr woman Manora and Brekke’s fosterling the forthright Mirrim took on far more prominence, indeed the clumsy, affectionate friendship between Menolly and Mirrim, both good hearted, but socially awkward girls was extremely engaging.

Having Menolly turn up in Bendon also lead to one of the most lovely parts of the book, the introduction of Master Harper Robinton and a conspiracy of kindness to help Menolly realise her potential. Indeed this is the book where Robinton really becomes a truly awesome character, just as wily in bringing a shy, mistreated girl out of her shell as when engaging in politics, not to mention bucking yet more traditions and gaining a gifted young apprentice into the bargain.

In many ways, Dragonsong mirrors Arrows of the Queen by Mercedes Lackey (unsurprising since Lackey was one of McCaffrey’s protégées). It is the story of a mistreated girl achieving an ambition against all odds with the help of non-human companions, and has some of the same appeal, especially to those who love music.

This is not a book of high action or epic proportions, but it shows that Pern is a real place, a place with prejudice, everyday life and ambition, and is all the more epic for that.

Despite a few issues with digressions and underused characters, this is the first Dragonriders book I can assuredly say is an absolute must read, especially if you’re a fan of music, or fire lizards, or both!

This Dragonsong book review was written by

All reviews for: Harper Hall

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