Monday, 4 September 2000

Anne McCaffrey: Dragonsinger: Harper of Pern (1977)

Edition: Corgi, 1978
Review number: 597

Although, one of the lightest novels in the Pern series, Dragonsinger is one of my favourites. I find it very evocative of what it feels like to take pleasure in making music. McCaffery is of course musical (she was an opera producer before taking up writing), and music plays an important part in a fair number of her novels (the Crystal Singer series and The Ship Who Sang as well as several of the Pern series).

Dragonsinger follows on immediately from Dragonsong, which tells of the early history of Menolly, whose musical nature is despised as impractical by her family. She finally arrives at Harper Craft Hall at the start of this novel, and the story is about how she finds her feet in her new environment, amazed to be somewhere where her gift is not just accepted but encouraged. She is talented even by the standards of the craft, as many people who have had to overcome grave disadvantages in their backgrounds to do what they really want to tend to be. This helps her form relationships with some people, but brings jealous resentment from others.

The secret of the way in which Anne McCaffrey writes about music is that she doesn't try too hard. Music is extremely difficult to describe in words, and the experience of music making even more so. Rather than resorting to metaphor or relying on musical knowledge in the reader, McCaffrey concentrates on the emotional content of the music. This is most easily seen in the scene in which Menolly plays in a chamber group for the first time. The impression given to the reader is the based on how Menolly gets caught up in the music, exhilarated by the experience, in the way in which the various parts fit together intricately, and how time means nothing - a lengthy rehearsal seems really brief.

The character of Menolly is not without literary faults. She is superhumanly gifted - as a composer of songs (both words and music), as a performer on many instruments that she never seems to practise of have had the opportunity to learn, as an instrument maker. She is too good to be possible. Dragonsinger is not, of course, intended to be a major work of literature, and it succeeds admirably on its own level.

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