Dragondrums by Anne McCaffery

Dragondrums book cover
Rating 7.7/10
Drumming up support

Dragondrums was a new experience for me. While as a teenager I’d read a fair few of the Dragonriders series, thanks to the fickle nature of audio tape availability and the lack of anywhere to look up a reading order I’d somehow missed Dragondrums. So on the one hand, it was my first new McCaffery novel in about nineteen years. On the other, that I had in fact been able to continue on with the sequence and hadn’t fallen into any plot holes probably indicates that I hadn’t missed anything Pern shattering along the way.

Though officially listed as third in the Harper Hall Trilogy and thus tentatively a sequel to Dragonsinger, Dragondrums is far more a stand alone novel and almost serves as a bridge between the character focused, insular style of Menolly’s story, and the more widespread political tale begun in Dragonflight.

Three turns after Menolly’s arrival at the Harper Hall, the now fourteen year old boy-soprano Piemur is shocked when his voice suddenly breaks. With singing his only major musical accomplishment, and no certainty about whether his adult voice will be any good, Piemur is unsure what to do next. Master Harper Robinton however has ideas about Piemur’s future. Piemur is sent to join the drummers, Harpers whose job is communicating by booming coded messages across the surface of thread torn Pern. Learning drums however is not Piemur’s only duty, since Piemur’s other major talents, quick wits, quick ears and a facility for mischief might be just what the Harper Hall needs, especially with the disgraced Dragonriders of Southern Weyr engaged in illegal trading, and the greedy Lord Meron suddenly acquiring a lot of valuable firelizard eggs.

The chief problem people seem to have with Dragondrums, is that despite nominally being third in a trilogy, it is definitely not Menolly’s story. Whether people enjoyed the book broadly seems to depend upon whether they get used to Piemur as a main character. It is certainly true that initially, Piemur seems more suited to be a rascally sidekick than a protagonist, since wheeling, dealing and conniving tend to work better when seen from the side-lines (especially when the observer is someone as starved for fun as Menolly was in Dragonsinger). Initially therefore, I found Piemur a trifle off putting myself, especially with his first reaction to losing his singing voice being to see it as a chance to inveigle desserts from sympathetic friends.

Indeed, though Piemur is nominally supposed to be fourteen, I found a lot of his behaviour more that of a bright, mercurial twelve year old, including his lack of reaction to situations like sitting on a dragon with Menolly’s arms around him holding him in front of her. Then again, Piemur began to grow on me throughout the book, his irrepressible humour, generally upbeat attitude and lack of teenaged angst. I also credit McCaffery for her ability to produce a genuinely clever character through leaps of logic and quick judgements he makes, rather than by just telling us how good his memory or learning is.

While I did enjoy Menolly’s story, with the previous two Pern books focused exclusively on her we slightly lost sight of other players, yet here McCaffery used Piemur’s various missions as an occasion to show us what some old friends, and indeed enemies were up to. Some of the most memorable moments therefore did not involve Piemur, but people like Menolly’s friend the kindly but awkward; and possibly autistic, Mirrim, the ailing but spiteful Lord Maron. (or Menolly herself).

Speaking of Menolly, I actually rather liked seeing her as Piemur’s surrogate big sister, plus Menolly manages to have probably the first uncomplicatedly romantic scene I’ve found in the series so far, getting together with a genuinely nice partner whom she actually likes. Even the psychic influence of mating firelizards here was more an aid to romance than a way of convincing the reader two ill-suited and ill-tempered people should actually be together, as it was in Dragonflight.

Unfortunately, with the plot dotting around Pern, joining other characters and showing several mildly political schemes, the flow of Piemur’s story feels slightly fragmented. There are sections that play out like rollicking boys adventure tales complete with disguises and chases, some awesome character moments, a little game playing and espionage, and some sudden abrupt returns to the school drama of Dragonsong.

In terms of plot, there were a few too many occasions here where McCaffery seemed to be having Piemur almost retread Menolly’s steps from the first two books, and though McCaffery is a good enough author to give a different spin on these events with a different protagonist, there is no denying some of the actual events are much the same, something which Piemur himself notices.

In terms of writing style, one thing I really appreciated here was the way that McCaffery’s plot balanced politics with personality, neither overloading us with names nor introducing characters without sufficient distinguishing features to identify them. Also, whilst McCaffery’s politics have always been of the debate first, decapitate later variety, here she did manage to make her political plots interesting with resolutions that were more than just a simple meeting to decide what to do. Indeed, one resolution involved several usually benign characters actually being quite cruel to a deeply unpleasant rival. Yet, since we saw the brutal circumstances that cruelty was meant to resolve, it was hardly a one sided issue; a far cry from Lessa’s hostage taking and intimidation tactics in Dragonflight, though I do wish we had been given time to see the personal reactions of the characters involved after the fact, since this is perhaps one instance where McCaffery’s generally optimistic tone feels slightly inappropriate.

Going along with political nuance, McCaffery’s depictions of Pern as a diverse and vibrant world with many different locations and customs continues. The deserts of Igen hold to the chaotic and brutal organisation of Nabol. Speaking of Nabol, it is interesting that McCaffery also quietly indicated both some of Pern’s less pleasant, hidebound customs, such as when Piemur expects Robinton to strike him for daring to speak ill of a dragonrider (even one of the indolent old timers), or the way that it is still automatically expected that all domestic tasks, including minor issues like pouring drinks are performed by women. And yet, there are indications that Pernese society is subtly changing, from Menolly’s acceptance as a female harper, to seeing another female pioneer in a previously male only position, to showing some different lifestyle changes on Pern’s expanding frontiers which rattle old assumptions.

This depiction of the world and its characters also marked a very definite improvement in the basic way McCaffery writes, with far more atmospheric passages, and a lack of run on sentences or overly cold descriptions.

All that being said, I did not like the way that McCaffery frequently skated over entire scenes and details with time skips. Piemur’s bullying by the drum apprentices doesn’t feel quite as serious as by rights it should, since it is almost glossed over, several of the bullies are not even named. I felt far more a sense of triumph when Pona and Menolly’s other tormentors were sent packing in the previous book, even though Piemur’s mistreatment here is arguably more extreme. I also admit that the way the situation resolved, with the authorities getting involved and putting a stop to things seemed a little unrealistic to me, then again as her protégé Mercedes Lackey does in several of her Valdemar books, McCaffery seems in favour of people just getting together and sorting things out reasonably, and while a jaded part of me wants to call this unrealistic, a more innocent part wants to protest that McCaffery shows us the way things should be done, even if in reality they rarely are.

As I approached the end of the book I honestly wondered where things were going. Pern was never a series for major battles or climaxes, but with the focus hopping around and Piemur’s generally positive attitude, I wondered if McCaffery would actually manage to tie matters together, or whether things would just peter out. Here McCaffery genuinely surprised me, indeed with most of Piemur’s attention spent on disguises and daring escapes and overhearing information rather than on his drumming, I wondered exactly where the book’s title instrument would come in.

Some have apparently called the ending forced or unearned, though to me it definitely felt as if it worked, though I do wish the drums themselves rather than Piemur’s ability with them was brought into greater prominence, since the idea of messages tolling out across the landscape, sending dragons flying against alien thread is just such an awesome one.

All in all, though perhaps not quite as good as Dragonsinger, Dragondrums was a lot of fun. An upbeat story of a boyish rascal artful dodgering his way around the dragon’s world, meeting some old friends along the way, and being witness to some pretty amazing goings on, it was also nice to know that despite being twenty years or so older, I can still enjoy racing around a vast and diverse world full of majestic dragons and impish firelizards, where alien silver threads fall from the sky and Harpers sing legendary ballads, and when tensions do arise they can usually be fixed by people behaving reasonably, or at least getting together to work out what to do about the few people who aren’t; wow! this really is fantasy. 
 
Though not quite as touching as Dragonsinger, and lacking the grimness or darkness of other fantasy series, there is no doubt Dragondrums is once again reminding me why I, along with many other people, spent a lot of my adolescence thinking about dragons.

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