Even the books that seem simplest and most conventional can still surprise. The big surprise for me with this one, re-reading it for the umpteenth time, but after a period of some years, was how unusual the central plot was. Ostensibly, there’s very little plot indeed. Menolly, heroine of Dragonsong, has arrived at her intended place in the world, the Harper Hall, and that’s pretty much about it.
In the absence of (serious) external obstacles to overcome, however, the flow of the narrative is instead directed internally: in essence, this is the story of Menolly overcoming her own fears and doubts to become an independent part of the world. It is the story of a girl entering adulthood, and the story of a person who, as one character puts it, has ‘lived too long alone’ coming to live in society. In that respect it is a fitting companion to, and to an extent even retrospectively improves, the first novel in the trilogy, in which problems were resolved chiefly by running away. Accordingly too, this novel of overcoming modesty puts the heroine in a rather more sympathetic light than the first, in which Menolly teetered dangerously on the edge of a rather tiresomely petulant teenage rebellion. The result is a sweeter and more touching book.
The idea also has its drawbacks, however. Without any genuine threat, mystery or entrapment, with the heroine placed in a nurturing environment in which many are dedicated to her and she is clearly at a great advantage over others, there’s no real tension – and the psychological journey is not laid out precisely or evocatively enough to create its own sense of momentum or progress. Menolly’s internal plotline is less an engine and more a spine upon which has been strung an extended vignette. Paradoxically, with less threat, the protagonist is less active, and her internal plotline is overshadowed as the screentime that might be given to her thoughts is hogged by other actors, who push her around taking advantage of her passivity.
If it’s a vignette, there are three sides to that picture. First, the Hall is an educational establishment, and the novel is basically “Menolly’s Schooldays”, though with an older and more gifted protagonist we are spared the raw drudgery of many school stories. This seems to be dealt with fairly well, elements of school, university and a guild system woven into a convincing establishment, but not one that is particularly memorable or thrilling, and not one into which we get much of an investigatory glimpse – it is strictly from pupil’s-eye-view. The second side is music, because that is the chief occupation of Harpers. Here, I am undone by my nature, since I found this story of composition and performance, quartets and music theory, inherently exciting and wondrous and and the same time comfortable. A composer is a far more fantastic creature than a dragon, in my soul. The very subject matter ensured a degree of affection from me. And it is not handled too terribly either – although it does at times feel that some of the musical remarks are a little reminiscent of Star Trek technobabble. All the terms make sense, I just sometimes got the feeling that McCaffrey didn’t know why they made sense, that maybe she was choosing from a list of things to say. In sum, the musical dimension of the book does not destroy it, but it feels to inspire to the degree it should. One major problem is that McCaffrey doesn’t have much clue yet about what sort of music she wants Menolly, Robinton and Domick to each be writing – beyond the fact that the former two write ‘accessible’ music that everybody can instantly understand and love, while the latter writes complicated music, for musicians. This fails to understand that accessibility in music, beyond the bare minimum, is largely cultural, not inherent – styles of music many would consider inaccessible and ‘artistic’ today were barn-stormingly popular in their day. Even Bach – the most obvious model for the Petiron/Domick school of composition – was a successful composer in his time, writing some very popular religious music for ordinary people, even if he was better known for his playing and improvisation. Indeed, this distinction between composers with tunes and composers who are just ‘good’ in some way that doesn’t involve melody just doesn’t begin to become relevant until the twentieth century, or very near to it. Take Bach – the most elevated, complicated, sophisticated “composer’s composer” you could name, but he still wrote tunes that people could hum in the street, and they still do so today (eg. “Wachet Auf”, “Air on a G String”, and several tunes from the Brandenburgs). What’s more, Bach’s more recondite music was largely overlooked in his own time. The distinction McCaffrey tries to draw between High and Low art is simply anachronistic, and feels ill-thought-out, as no further details of style are given to bolster it. Finally, it would be good to have just a few clues as to musical style. I know this is a fantasy world and not identical to any earth musical tradition, but let’s just have a few hints about what is important. Should we be imagining something baroque/classical/romantic? Prog rock? Ars Nova and Ars Subtilior? Renaissance? Carnatic?
The third dimension is the fantastic nature of the world. This is a post-apocalyptic science fiction fantasy in deep space on a planet ravaged by an interstellar fungus and protected by bioengineered teleporting dragons. Surprisingly little of that is visible here. I’m not sure if this is to its credit or demerit. Certainly, the book is deeply reliant on the rest of the series, not only for general background explanation and worldbuilding but also because the plots of the other books impinge into the events of this. Indeed, it’s no exaggeration to say that all the things that actually happen here are things that happen onscreen in Dragonquest, and if you haven’t read that first, this book must seem very perplexing. As it happened, I DID read this first – but I’m rather atypical in terms of how much unexplained off-screen action I can accept. In any case, this raises the uncomfortable issue of how this trilogy is meant to interact with the main sequence again – as I commented when reviewing the first book. Meanwhile, I rather wished this book itself were a little more fantastic, as too much of it seemed worldly, even modern, in its feel and its details. Characters even eat cereal for breakfast, for instance. None of that is lethal to the book, but does feel like a wasted opportunity. The really alien elements – the dragons, and Thread – are glossed over here, presumably because they were already familiar after their introduction in earlier books.
The word, therefore, in the broadest sense – from the solar system right down to the walls of the hold – is not broken, but not particularly deep or glistening. That attraction being absent, the characters have to take up much of the slack, and here McCaffrey really is disappointing. Menolly is barely a character – partly because she is young, partly because she is shy, and partly because her thoughts and behaviours are often pushed around by events, making it hard to see much of the underlying personality. What we do see is of course likeable, if a little Mary Sue-ish. Well, VERY Mary Sue, actually, but it’s less of a problem than in the first book – here, the only thing that REALLY matters is her musical genius, and that’s the central conceit of the book. The rest can mostly be set to one side (although it’s still suspicious how good she is at everything musical, from copying sheetmusic to assembling drums – the story would be better if her talents were more strictly limited to composition).
Around her there are sixty or so characters, by the dramatis personae – but most are cameos. Of those who have more time, Sebell and Talmor are faceless male benefactors; Robinton is mostly free of personality beyond inspiring religious-level devotion in all who meet him, for no clear reason (although we do see some glimpses of the more complicated, troubled character McCaffrey seems to fall in love with later on – but the combination of Robinton’s own facade and Menolly’s limited viewpoint restrict our access to his soul to a few lines here and there); Silvina and Dunca play opposing sides of the matriarchal cliche; some girls play the brats and bullies, another plays the shy nice girl who befriends the heroine; Piemur is, in the words of the book itself, a “scamp”, who seems drawn from some Dickensian-lite portrait of a jolly urchin. Morshall, Jerint, Arnor and Oldive are one-note cliches. Groghe seems like a cliche, displays hints of something more, but doesn’t get enough screentime to follow through on the promise.
The one truly interesting character is Camo, the mentally disabled servant. Some may find the rather unsparing depiction of his mental inadequacy, and the off-hand use of terms like “dull-witted”, somewhat offensive. Others may simply find his antics painful. Personally, I found him a high-note: note because I didn’t find him annoying, since I did, but because I think the author manages to be very matter-of-fact about him. Central is the point that there is absolutely no reason whatsoever for there to be a man with learning disabilities in this book. None at all. It provides a minor plot point, but that could have been handled just as well without him. Camo is not there to advance the plot, and he’s not there to laugh at either (he’s more painful than amusing), and McCaffrey doesn’t try to make the character less painful to watch in any way, and nor does she try to make him more entertaining. The fact that he’s “dull-witted” (clinically so, his “brains are addled”) is simply a fact about the character that is never explained, and never really even commented on. The terms people use to describe him aren’t meant as insults or mockery, and in that way I think the author does very well in presenting mentally disabled people in a low-tech setting in a way that might reflect how (in a more intelligent and caring environment, which the Harper Hall is) such people might be seen and dealt with, without having the book actually be ABOUT their disability.
See? Even the simplest and least promising books can still surprise!
Adrenaline: 1/5. I read through it fairly quickly, but more because I found it comfortable than because it gripped me. I think if it had been longer, I would have struggled with it; you’d have to really care about the characters and/or the setting in order to be engaged, I think – there are no thrills and cliffhangers here.
Emotion: 2/5. I did care a little about the characters, and there were a few touching moments.
Thought: 2/5. It’s simplistic and straightforward – but a little more cerebral than those adjectives might suggest, because it is mostly psychological. And because so much is off-screen that it can be hard to hold it all together.
Beauty: 3/5. It’s got music in it, and joy in music. The prose isn’t outstanding, but I think it does a good job of conveying the joy Menolly feels, and her gradual opening to the world.
Craft: 3/5. Don’t know what to say about it. If this is the sort of book you like, there’s nothing really wrong with it. If this is the sort of book you don’t like, there’s nothing to make it worth reading in spite of that.
Endearingness: 4/5. Empathetic main character, slow and easy pace, beautiful emotions, wondrous (to me!) setting – I know this isn’t a great book, but even so I find myself re-reading it repeatedly.
Originality: 3/5. It’s quite different, as sci-fantasy coming-of-age stories with dragons in them go.
Overall: 3/7. Bad, but with redeeming features.