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A novel by Anne McCaffrey
(1984, Doubleday Books)
[original copyright: 1976]

Harper Hall Trilogy, book 1

A young woman who is forbidden to sing leaves the Hall where she grew up, to find more than she could have ever expected in the world at large.


+ -- First reading (multibook hardcover)
January 13th to 16th, 2019


A quiet and thoroughly enjoyable trip back to Pern, about a young woman who wants to be more than she is permitted to be. Taking place in an oppressed society, it’s always so much fun to see the protagonist strike back, and gain recognition. The author lets us keep rooting for her, while her fate is never in doubt, because we see other point of view characters as well. If anything, while fun, it was a little too predictable. I also thought the beginning could have been more personal, rather than painting her life in such broad strokes. Both minor complaints.

Spoiler review:

It’s been a while since I last visited Pern. Dragonsong takes us back to the second book in the original trilogy, seven years after the first fall of Thread after its long absence. The Half-Circle Sea Hold had just lost its only Harper to old age, and Menolly was his only protégé. But she’s a girl, and Half-Circle Sea Hold is beholden to ancient and outmoded traditions. Menolly is used in the position of teaching the young their Teaching Songs, but is not welcome to do any more, even though her father is Head of the Hold. He even beats her when she starts making up new songs, strictly against tradition.

Then, one day, while gutting a fish, she cuts her hand, and it gets infected. It looks like her mother exaggerates the damage, and does a poor job of healing it, because her hand comes out crippled after that, and she's told in no uncertain terms that she’ll never be able to play music again. It’s easy to feel anger at her mother, and empathy for Menolly, especially in the way the story is written. The author does an excellent job of giving us Menolly’s emotions and showing the unfairness of her situation. But she doesn’t have many options. The Sea Hold is very isolated.

And when the new Harper arrives, so full of hope to change the world, as Masterharper Robinton and head Dragonrider F’lar want to do, everybody hides Menolly away. Since she can’t play anymore with her hand, she slinks away every chance she gets. I find it unlikely that nobody, not even the youngest among the holders, lets slip that Menolly was their teacher for months. It’s only when Harper Elgion goes out to sea with her brother, who makes the slip.

Menolly, for her own part, leaves the Hold as often as she can, avoiding her sister and mother and their make-work projects, designed to get Menolly’s mind off singing. She scours the beaches for succulent shellfish and grasses, and comes across a queen fire lizard in trouble. With the torrential rains, the queen’s beach-bound clutch of eggs is in danger of being drowned. So when she helps the queen carry them to safety, she makes a friend. When things get too hard in the Hold, it’s no surprise that Menolly searches out the fire lizards for company, and then joins them as she runs away.

The tipping point is the fall of Thread, which threatens her while she’s too far from the safety of the Hold. She crawls into the cave, barely making it in time -and just in time to see the clutch of fire lizard eggs hatch. Trying to stop them from flying out into deadly Thread, she empties the food stores from her bag, and immediately Impresses nine of them, including a baby queen.

Menolly’s time with the fire lizards was very fulfilling, as she hides out from her Hold, who presume her dead, and she explores further down the beach, even finding another clutch. There’s nothing superbly stunning about her days, but it’s all in the way the author writes about the bond between the young musician and her even younger fire lizards.

Meanwhile, Elgion is still searching for the young “lad” who composed such wonderful new songs, as well as fire lizard eggs. He finds neither, but they do come across Menolly’s cave, but they are out to sea, and can’t get in to shore.

Meanwhile, when Menolly is out exploring, she sees Thread in the distance, and has no choice but to try and outrun it. She’s spotted by a dragonrider and brought to Benden weyr to recover -as she ran the skin right off the soles of her feet. Her time in Benden weyr is funny, because we know that F’lar and Lessa are very progressive, and Menolly is so afraid of getting in trouble, first for having fire lizards, and second for enjoying playing music -and both are the very qualities they are expecting from everyone. It’s a good thing that Menolly is found out quickly, though, because I think it would get annoying if she was always so shy and insecure.

She watches the hatching of the eggs that happens at the beginning of The White Dragon, but it’s an ancillary achievement for her. More importantly are the bonds of friendship she forges with the others there, from the Head Woman to the healer, and the dragonriders. Lessa is very distant, only interested in Menolly for her fire lizards and the new clutch she found on the beach. But it’s a fun and unnerving moment for Menolly, and especially for the reader.

I suppose some of the enjoyment comes from knowing the story of what’s going on in the outside world, from having read the original Dragonrider books, as well as Moreta -the influence behind the song Moreta’s Ride. Even without that, however, we get enough outside perspective from Elgion and the dragonriders that we can have fun seeing Menolly’s enlightenment. The other enjoyment comes from seeing her break free of her bonds, from a Hold that’s repressive. She might get it too easy when she moves out, because reality doesn’t hit her, even after she escapes the Threadfall. But her freedom was so short that it doesn’t matter. The story is about the girl becoming a Harper, and having the courage to take the necessary steps. These steps of course won’t work for everybody, but Menolly was a resourceful girl to begin with, ironically because of Yanus and her mother, strict as they were.

The book ends abruptly, leading directly into the second one, as she is tricked into singing, along with showing how her fire lizards can also sing, which prompts Masterharper Robinton to solicit her for the Harper Hall. I suppose it’s a natural break, but I think the author intended it as a single story. I will jump right in and oblige.


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