I confess: I have read… at least a dozen, and almost certainly more, of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books. I have not, however, read any of them for quite some time now, as I’ve always felt that they are somewhat childish books (and because the last one I read rather disenchanted me). Recently, however, finding myself nostalgic and in need of a very quick and easy read, my hand fell to this book, the first of a trilogy of short novels focusing on Harper Hall, the series’ guild of musicians, teachers, advisors and occasional spies.
Dragonsong (indeed, the whole of this trilogy) is a children’s novel even by the standards of the setting – it is simplistic, predictable, centred around a child protagonist, and largely lacking in perspective. The whole trilogy should probably be seen as a child’s introduction to Pern, as indeed I suspect it may have been intendend. It was, however, rather better than I was expecting.
The heroine of the story is a young girl, Menolly, who is tall and awkward, and rather direct in manner, and who desperately longs to follow her talents, but who is prevented from doing so by virtue of being a girl. So far, so cliché. Unusually for the genre, however, Menolly’s tomboyishness does not express itself through a love of fighting, or similarly physical endeavour, but rather through a talent as a musician and composer – unfortunately for her, an exclusively male preserve.
This may be a twist, but the basic set-up will be painfully familiar to experienced readers: Menolly’s parents are foolish and stubborn and tyrannical, and do not attempt to seriously convince her, or to accommodate her desires in their needs; Menolly is desperate to escape, to the point of deciding to run away from home; Menolly falls into a number of difficulties, from which she escapes by virtue of being brilliant at everything and of having everybody on the planet, other than her parents, be desperate to help her; Menolly is eventually recognised as wonderful and is adored by all the planet’s parental figures.
Regarding the plot, there are three large problems. Firstly, the antagonism of her parents, and of her elder sister, never feels real: although there are vague gestures in the direction of a reason for their behaviour, their case is never argued (either in dialogue or by the author) with enough vigour to make them seem understandable, and in particular their emotional attitude seems to vary considerably between chapters as the plot demands – strict but concerned at one point, barely caring whether she lives or dies at another. Their behaviour is made even more troublesome by the fact that it is so out of line with that of the surrounding society, which is universally pro-Menolly; this is to a degree necessary, as the plot is largely one of escape from a small town into a more liberal culture, but although it is mentioned that her Hold is quite conservative, there is never any serious explanation of why the gulf is so large. Indeed, the entire foundational conceit, that Harpercraft is an exclusively male expertise, is neither explained nor really in keeping with the rest of the series, where no such limitation seems to exist; it is retconned in the sequel that Petiron (the old Harper at her Hold) is conservative in that way, but in a later novel we see that he himself was married to a female Harper. There are hints that Menolly’s perspective may be flawed or partial, but given just how unsympathetic Mavi and Yanos are, these hints are only confusing – why, for instance, does the otherwise perfect Manora seem to have a great respect, even friendship, for Mavi, when we can all see how horrible she is? The book makes a lot more sense from the perspective of a child, where the unfairness of adults is simply taken for granted, rather than from that of an adult, who may wish to actually understand the actions of his peers.
Secondly, Menolly is so perfect that it grates. It is essential for the plot that she be a talented composer (though the elaboration of just how talented she is in this field is left for the sequel – here, she need only be talented enough to draw the attention of senior Harpers) – and so I do not object to this. I object somewhat more to her brilliance in related fields – singing, instrumental playing, and the making of instruments – although these are at least things she must have studied, and we do not really know how good she is (her singing is adored by everybody, for example, but we are also told that nobody else in the Hold can carry a tune at all, so her own talent need not be that great). It’s a little more vexing that she can, for instance, invent a particular oil with little effort, or create clay pots between paragraphs, but let’s just say that she was just well-trained in such useful skills by an very particular mother in self-reliant times. But there is surely no reason at all why Menolly must also be a truly outstanding runner! And to top it all off, she’s also got a natural talent for attracting and dealing with ‘fire lizards’, a small species of dragon – and though it may appear to be luck, the fact that it is actually talent is repeatedly hammered home by those who really do seem to know what they are talking about. [The fire lizard plot is rather superfluous in the book, and indeed the trilogy, and seems to be there only to make her seem cool; in the wider series, the sudden appearance of fire lizards is truly incongruous. In this book, we are told that they are almost legend, and that every boy grows up trying again and again to catch them, but nobody has ever succeeded; a few books later, and it seems that everyone on Pern has acquired one as a pet. While I actually quite like the concept of fire lizards, they represent an anomolous and off-putting dimension in Pern’s plotline]
Thirdly, Menolly never has to do anything. The book does not end with her struggling nobly to freedom; it does not end with her facing up to her parents; it does not end with her accepting their views and buckling down to the life they choose for her. Any of these could demonstrate character; instead, Menolly essentially has only to find her way to the world outside her hometown, and she is instantly loved universally and told how wonderful she is. Even getting to that world is more a matter of luck and outside assistance than of personal struggle. This makes it hard to really feel too strongly about the book. Nothing is really accomplished, and at no time does any threat feel really real. Everything is just too easy.
This may sound damning – and indeed it is. But Dragonsong does have redeeming features. For all her perfections, Menolly is, to me at least, quite likable as a protagonist, perhaps precisely because there is so little real struggle needed: her talents are therefore not often used to overcome obstacles, and can be treated as adjuncts to her character, rather than as central to her progress. I have, I must admit, weaknesses both for oppressed tomboys (see my review of Dark Heart) and for composers, so Menolly is, if not close to my heart, at least the object of general feelings of goodwill and affection. Although too much of the novel relies on the power of things looking cool, McCaffrey does do cool quite well – in both dragons and in music, she manages to bring forth charismatic elements. Her prose is not noteworthy, but is unobjectionable – straightforward, but not too clunky or repetitive – and is probably better than average for pulp fantasy. Her only problem in this regard is the dialogue, which is not strictly bad, but rather too bland – a great many characters sound far too similar to one another, and nearly everybody in the novel has their speech pervaded by an unrelentingly jovial flippancy. The setting, meanwhile, is easy to be blasé about, now that we have known it for forty years, but it remains appealing nonetheless, familiar in many elements, yet not afraid to be alien at times, and tinted with hints of a very different, futuristic, setting lying behind the medievalisms. The flatness of characters and tendency to inconsistency and superficiality in background plot elements prevents the author from living up to the potential of the setting, but that should not cause us to ignore what is good in it.
An interesting thing to note in this respect is the troubled relationship between this novel and others of the series, not only in terms of inconsistencies, but also in its dependence: although it feels like an introductory novel for younger readers, it also forms part of the overall patchwork of plot developments. For those who read this book without having read the previous books of the series, much confusion and frustration are likely, and similarly some events that occur are not explained, or do not have the importance they are allocated justified, until later novels not strictly part of this trilogy. Its worth as an introduction is therefore hindered – a good example being the amout of time devoted to the story of Brekke, which seems to require considerable foreknowledge if we are to care about it, and which does not feel resolved; the brief cameo of Jaxom, meanwhile, is likely to be baffling to many, with much importance attached to something seemingly trivial. At the same time, readers of the main sequence of novels are likely to be perplexed and disappointed by the radically different focus, and more child-oriented delivery, of this trilogy, damaging its worth as a full member of the series. It is thus not really clear what this book is meant to be.
Also, the author follows the old tradition of putting extracts of in-world fiction at the beginning of each chapter, and chooses to use poetry (/song lyrics). Once or twice, these are vaguely clever or pretty lines, but most of them vary from uninspired, to mawkish, to painfully bad. The author should not attempt to write poetry for each chapter unless the author happens to be a capable poet; this one is not. A snippet here and there would be no problem, but by the end of the book they were little pellets of pain waiting for me after each chapter number.
Adrenaline: 3/5. Not that much happens; what happens is predictable and involves little dramatic struggle. However, the book is executed well enough that I can’t mark it down on adrenaline: somehow, it manages to exploit the periods of inaction and waiting to increase a tension that has no rational reason for existing whatsoever. Really don’t know why, but it works – or at least, it fails to fail.
Emotion: 2/5. Execution delivers excitement, but in this case it couldn’t deliver engagement. I like Menolly, I really do (though I’m not sure why, as she’s annoyingly whimpery and short-sighted), but she’s not put into enough drama to make me care too much.
Thought: 2/5. It could be worse. There’s a little bit of interest in the behaviour of the adults and just how wrong they are, and there are also vignettes of thought, like the Brekke subplot. Overall, though, there’s nothing much to provoke reflection here.
Beauty: 2/5. The prose has some good bits, and the presence of dragons and music and the powerful image of Thread all buoy up the aesthetics, but the predictabilities, and the flatness and repetitiveness of many characters, are all a little repellent.
Craft: 3/5. Mostly unobjectionable. I observed some structural problems above, but these seem to me more decisions of the author than accidents of craft. The writing is generally sound, and the fact that she wrung tension out of something so devoid of it naturally demonstrates how well she is able to construct larger structures. However, I wouldn’t recommend the book on the basis of its craft.
Endearingness: 3/5. Dragons, composition, defiance of social expectations… I can hardly mark it down. On the other hand, Menolly is a little too perfect, the world a little too simple, to mark it up.
Originality: 2/5. Has the advantage of an interesting setting, and makes the interesting decision to focus on music as the chosen excellence. However, little else in this novel of teenageness is original or distinct.
Overall: 3/7: Bad, but with redeeming features. This sounds a bit harsh to me – there’s nothing really wrong with this book. I enjoyed reading it, and after the opening few chapters had no intention of stopping at any point. On the other hand, there’s nothing really good about it either – I can’t think of any reason to recommend this book, other than ones related to facts about the potential reader rather than facts about the book itself. So perhaps we should see it as bad, but with ‘too solid to be terrible in any way’ as its redeeming feature?