When Legends was published, in 1998, it seemed not only welcome, but necessary. The empire of literature, it goes without saying, has for at least a century been too broad for any one reader to know it all first-hand in one lifetime. Even in a single field, a single subgenre, it can be hard for a reader to really have a firm grasp of the state of the art (let alone the canon of classics). We all hear names, from time to time, of this writer or that, and make a mental note to catch-up… but how often do most of us follow through? It’s a perennial problem… but it may never have been a more pressing problem than in the epic fantasy genre of the late 1990s.
Have you ever played a fantasy or science-fiction role-playing game on a computer? I’m thinking of things like the Mass Effect series. If so, you may have noticed that many of these games come with some form of ‘codex’, a pack of documents explaining the backstory behind the characters and the world, generally parcelled out to you in small, unthreatening dribbles as you go through the game. You typically don’t actually have to read the codex to complete the game, but it can be a fun, interesting read.
Have you ever wanted to just read an entire codex from start to finish, but restructured around the experiences of a couple of protagonist characters? If so, Dragonsdawn might appeal to you…
Love has often not been Fantasy’s strong suite – unsurprisingly, perhaps, for a genre for so long primarily marketed at geeky teenage boys. As among many geeky teenage boys, there was sort of an apprehension that love was incredibly important and solved all your problems, but not really too much idea of what exactly it entailed. The love of Aragorn and Arwen, for instance, or of Rosie and Sam, was ideal for a fantasy novel: signposted from the beginning so as not to be a cause of any anxiety or confusion, then conveniently absent while all the exciting stuff was going on so as not to get in the way, and finally dealt with once and for all with a marriage at the end of the book, because as we all know real life ends with marriage…
…but along the way, the genre has produced the odd interesting pairing. Some truly moving; others, just truly disturbing. Here, in accordance with this ‘Tough Travelling’ meme that I keep meaning to participate in but never quite get around to, are a few that I can think of.
All are variants on the idea of ‘true love’ as presented in Fantasy; some may be more loving, or more true, than others. The meme calls for five… I ended up with 13. Well, 14, technically. But then I do way fewer than 1 in 3 of these, so I reckon I’m still in deficit…
Warning: beyond this point lie moderate spoilers for the works of Tolkien, Feist, Wurts, Weiss, Hickman, Eddings, Abrams, McCaffrey, Abrams, Hobb, Jordan, Green, Donaldson, Pratchett, Gentle, and Nyx Smith…
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.
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?