Saturday, April 4, 2015

Dragonsong (1976)

Dragonsong, by Anne McCaffrey, was the first book in the Harper Hall trilogy, was published in 1976. According to the wise and knowledgeable Wikipedia, the book was commissioned by Atheneum Press to attract female readers into SF.

Set on Pern seven years into the 9th pass, the story follows the travails of Menolly, an ill fitting girl in an overly conservative sea hold. By overly conservative, I mean that Anne clubs you with a narrow minded bat until you beg for forgiveness. Menolly is cursed with a talent for music, which only some boys and harpers are supposed to have. Being a permanent embarrassment, her father decides to give her hell until her personality wears off.

Oh, the aches that this novel reawakened in me. I read this book back in 1977 or so. I remember lying in the back yard sucking down the story. I had read Dragonflight and Dragonquest, quickly becoming my two favorite books, before launching into this series. I found myself reacting in similar ways all the way through. But time does change you, and it certainly changed how I saw this book.

Anne cleverly swaps perspectives in this book, using those perspectives to speak to her young readers. Menolly does have a hard time, and honestly can't see past her nose. We switch perspectives, and her parents can't see past their own noses either. They aren't vengeful or cruel, for the most part, but just over-practical people living in a difficult time. A new harper comes to the sea hold, and we see more perspective from him. He befriends Menolly's older brother who doesn't agree with his father's ways, showing us that families are not monolithic. When Menolly switches to living in Benden Weyr, we switch perspectives again. Now we have Menolly living among a different community, one that sees her hurt and knows that something is going wrong for her. All those qualities that got her in trouble at home are now valued. At home, her sister didn't think that she worked hard, but in the weyr they thought her a hard worker. At home her music was an embarrassment but in the weyr it was a welcome diversion. At home, discipline and routine were the marks of the day, while in the weyr, diversions were acceptable.

And in there, Menolly befriends many fire lizards, which caused a fad of wearing fake fire lizards at SF conventions for years to come.

The book does wander in places. As it overlaps Dragonquest, many points of the Dragonquest plot must be reiterated. This all reads like filler, but hey, I ate this stuff up in the 7th grade, so maybe it wasn't a mistake. Aside from that, this book is all new material. This is the first that we see of everyday holder life, and how the people on the ground see the world that they live in. Life in the lower caverns expands as well, giving us a new appreciation of what it takes to support a weyr.

Strangely, I misremembered the ending, totally and completely. In my memory, Menolly still met the Masterharper and was asked to Harper Hall, but the circumstances didn't match the book all. In comparison, I like my imagined version better. I found the actual ending a bit too twee.

Compared to today's polished and astonishingly good YA novels, I found Dragonsong both rougher and duller. This is less of a ding against Anne and more of a recognition of the excellence of today's YA market.