Issue #267 – Dragonsong by Anne McCaffrey

I started Dragonsong under a misapprehension. I found a used copy from the late 70s and thought it was the first of the Dragonriders of Pern novels, in part because the book itself doesn’t indicate any books coming before it, only two afterwards, Dragonsinger and Dragondrums. Turns out this was because this was the first book to be printed under a new publisher and editor.

It also turned out that this Pern novel was intended for young adults, whereas the first Pern trilogy was intended for an older audience. You’d think that would mean this book would act as an introduction, assuming no prior knowledge, yet I still felt like I was thrown head first into the world without much background (other than what was provided in the opening Forward).

What drew me into this novel was the intriguing idea that it wasn’t a fantasy in the traditional sense. It was a fantasy born from a science fiction origin story. 2500 years before Dragonsong the planet of Pern was settled by humans colonists, who then found their colony subject to a biological menace known as Thread, a spore-like thing which comes from a rogue planet that passes in close orbit every 250 years. Thread consumes anything organic, including people, and threatened to destroy the human settlements. But the planet is home to intelligent creatures that they designate as dragons, which people can form telepathic bonds with, and whose fire can defeat Thread far more efficiently than humans alone.

While the human colonists had always intended to adopt a low-technology agrarian lifestyle over time, the threat of Thread sped this process up considerably, and so by the time Dragonsong comes along, the world is much more akin to those of a familiar fantasy novel, right down to a feudalistic hierarchy (and, as I soon found out, sexism as well).

This sexism is basically the focal point of the novel, which features a young 15 year old girl named Menolly, who is a talented musician, but is unable to become a Harper because of her sex (among other reasons, like a stick-in-the–mud father, Masterfisher Yanus, ruler of Seahold, who only values hard work and knowing your place). Even though she’s been teaching the children for some time through song, she is forbidden from revealing her talents to the new Harper that arrives.

Harpers aren’t your standard fantasy bards, they hold important places in society. They are teachers, historians, lawyers and diplomats, as well as musicians. But despite their importance, her parents and father in particular feel her talents being revealed would somehow shame his Hold, and they punish her whenever she displays her skills, however unintended it might be.

Eventually she runs off, deciding to live Holdless from that point on. She befriends a group of fire-lizards (think psudo-dragons in D&D) and ends up rescuing a clutch of their eggs. From that point on the story is about her with the fire-lizards, how she Impresses herself on the young when they hatch, and how she cares for them.

Eventually she is rescued during a Threadfall by a dragonrider, and taken to Benden Weyr, where she quickly finds a place among them and helps out in preparation for a true dragon hatching about to take place. During this time her secrets from Seahold and the fire-lizard cave slowly comes to light.

The fact that this is story written for young adults is apparent, not just in the age of the protagonist, but the almost Disney-like “I want” longing in her, which could easily have a musical number attached. In fact, aside from the fact that this story lacks any kind of villain or maniacal scheme to thwart, this very much feels like that kind of story.

I would say it’s a journey about personal growth, but in many ways even that feels lacking—at least when this book is taken on its own. By the end she is just as timid and unsure of her abilities as at the beginning, just as convinced she’s unworthy of attention or praise. It takes everyone who has figured out about her gifts to trick her into revealing herself and ultimately she agrees to train to be a Harper. While her character undoubtedly grows in the sequels, I am referring only to my experience in this specific book.

The best way I would describe this book is “slice of life.” It has no villain, no huge character arc, but is basically about Menolly’s life on Pern and adapting to her circumstances as she goes along. This is not a bad thing, especially if you’re interested in the world building of Pern. Given how the series evolves as they re-introduce technology to the world, this is kind of foundation for the world that was would be even more interesting in retrospect. 

But taken on its own, the book just seems to putter around, introducing you to the world and the institutions within it. Menolly is far more of a reactive character than a proactive one. It’s an enjoyable book, but won’t leave a lasting impression.

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