The Masterharper of Pern (1998) by Anne McCaffrey follows the life of Robinton, the most well loved character in her Pern series. The story does its best to unite the Pern of her later novels with the Pern of her early novels, to some credible success, but also has places where the story clunks.
Most importantly, this is a Harper Hall book, which makes it a welcome addition for me. I love the Harper Hall books most of all her Pern books, so any addition, to me is a good addition. It's a more satisfying Harper Hall than Dragon Drums, which suits me just fine.
The book itself is ambitious, attempting to unite the old Pern with the new Pern, show us Harper Hall, the weyr, and the holds, the troubles of the times, the rise of Fax, the slow retreat of women from public life, the arc of Robinton's relationship with his father, and the events that shaped the Masterharper. Anne does her best to rise to the challenge, but fails as often as succeeds.
By necessity, the novel is structured like a biography, for better or ill. By following Robinton's life, the story can't move through the same structure that a work of heroic fiction can. Because of that, the story can't have the same energy in the same points. In places, I found the episodes engaging, and in other places, I found the episodes dull filler, doing little more than explaining one plot point or another. At times, we closely go through years, and at other times, leap over significant time in a paragraph.
Also by necessity, we meet all the major players of the pre-pass era. This is par for the course for Pern books. If you didn't meet the important people, you wouldn't have a book. That means that we meet people and we learn why Robinton has his particular reltionship with each: Petiron (Robinton's father, who becomes Menolly's teacher), F'lon (his good friend, and father to F'lar and F'nor), a young Manora, Jora (who is mostly a non-entity), Fax (the bad guy, Robinton works for him briefly, then watches him conquer other holds), and a small host of other young nobles who become the Lord Holder of later books.
In many respects, she does a fair job setting up situations for the future.
Prequals have an additional challenge that most books don't have. They must shine a new light onto the existing books, so that the books that come afterward have increased meaning, that we understand better the relationships that unfold. Anne does a fair job of this at best. I think that she misses many opportunities. Where this works with Robinton's relationship to F'lar and F'nor, where it works okay is with the traditions of Harper Hall, and where it works poorly is with history. It never made sense that a bunch of Lord Holders would sit around with their thumbs up their asses when a murder has seized a hold, but that's the case.
Some retconning happens here, either by accident or on purpose. I'm for it. I am a retcon supporter. An author can and should change her lore when her original lore contains decisions that no longer work for the story. I only wish that Ane had gone even further. I think that she missed some great opportunities.
I felt like the early parts of the book were well considered and generally well executed. By the end, I felt like Anne was up against a deadline, writing out the remainder of her outline as fast as possible. That was said. I felt like there were two books here, one for Robinton's early life, and one about him as Masterharper, with the Masterharper story getting short shrift.
Indeed, my biggest complain of the book is that Anne missed too many opportunities in favor of trite plot arcs. The story needed more heart to it.
As for Robinton, he's the best singer, composer, songwriter, copyist, and woodworker in the hall. He's totally best in every way, yet a total disappointment to his father. I find that all rather hard to swallow. The character would have worked so much better if he had been an average harper in every way, except for having a keen insight into people and a remarkable ability to pursued. His youth should have been filled with more trouble and more head slaps. That way, he really could have been a total disappointment to his father, instead of a perceived disappointment, and yet still would have had the right skills to make the Masterharper.
Anne goes out of her way to let you know that Robinton isn't gay. Really, really, really, he's not gay. Look, here's yet another woman, he's not gay.
As for Pern (the planet itself is a character), we meet a society going away. There's a perpetual feeling of loss, of less. The old Pern is going away, being slowly replaced by a more repressive, backward Pern. Sometimes this is handled highhandedly, Anne slapping you with the news, but on other ways, she handles it nicely.
On the whole, Anne's abilities are up to the task while writing a Harper Hall book, but when pressed with the bigger challenges of the work, produced unnecessary dull prose. That much said, I'm still a sucker for Anne.