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Dragondrums by Anne McCaffrey

Published by Bantam Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

In the third novel of the Harper Hall trilogy of young-adult Pern novels, Anne McCaffrey moves her focus away from Menolly, who has successfully found her place among Pern's elite harpers, who serve as entertainers, educators and even judges. Instead this novel will focus upon Piemur, the youth who was her first friend and champion when she was still a shy and uncertain lass thrust into this august company. When we first met him in Dragonsinger, he held a privileged position in the Harper Hall as the result of his fine soprano voice, which was particularly important because at the time the Harper Hall was an entirely masculine place and thus feminine roles in musical plays had to be performed by prepubescent boys. (It should be noted that this situation is directly contradicted by the later novel The Masterharper of Pern, in which Robinton's mother is said to be a professional singer; however, this later novel was written as McCaffrey moved away from a realistic portrayal of gender roles in a pre-industrial society to a more pastelized, politically correct version).

As this novel begins, Piemur is entering puberty, with all the changes that entains. When his voice changes suddenly, right before he is about to play an important part in a Gather musical, he is out of his comfortable position. However, he's shown too much potential to simply be tossed out of Harper Hall and sent back to the hold of his birth. Even if his adult voice does not prove to be of the same caliber, he still can perform the more ordinary duties of a Harper in a more than adequate fashion, certainly more than sufficient to teach. So Masterharper Robinton decides to make Piemur an apprentice to the message drummers until his voice settles and he can begin training his adult voice.

Or at least that's the official story that will be circulated around Harper Hall. In fact, Robinton has some very special work in mind for the lad who befriended his own special student and made sure she was welcomed during a very sensitive period. Work that will involve the other, less well-known duties of a Harper, beyond the public performance of musical entertainment or even the training of the young in their duties to Hold and Weyr. Duties that would be closer to the work of a diplomat or even a covert agent on other worlds.

However, Piemur's reputation goes before him. In Dragonsinger he had a well-established reputation for mischief, and in the drumheights he is suddenly handling information from all over Pern. Often it is exceedingly sensitive information of the sort that could cause considerable trouble were it to be incautiously released. Thus he has been very sternly cautioned that he must not indulge his passion for trouble while on this assignment, and he fully intends to abide by those strictures.

Except his own resolution to be a model drum apprentice is regarded rather suspiciously by those in authority. Every time gossip proves a little too accurate, he becomes the recipient of suspicious gazes, and nothing he can do will dispel the certainty that he must be responsible for the leaks.

Worse, the other drum apprentices are giving him a hard time. A certain amount of getting-to-know-you hazing is typical any time a new apprentice joins an established group, and Piemur's well aware of the pattern. But there's more than the usual sorting out of the hierarchy going on here, because it doesn't taper off. If anything, it steadily worsens as Piemur has to repeatedly slip off to do various errands for Masterharper Robinton.

The handling of the interpersonal tensions in this section is some of McCaffrey's most masterful work, in which she really captures the social dynamic of teenage boys. We see the steady petty vandalism, just enough to make Piemur's life miserable but never anything sufficiently serious that adult authority will not overlook it, particularly when Piemur is determinedly trying to treat it as trifling in hopes that it will finally stop -- until it finally goes too far.

Piemur is called away to Benden Weyr to witness a Hatching, the moment in which dragons and riders are bound one to the other for life in the wondrous moment of Impression (after all, it simply wouldn't be a Pern book without that peak-experience moment of a Hatching -- I don't think there's a single Pern novel that doesn't have a Hatching scene somewhere in it, and that's one of the problems of the later books: the Hatching scenes start to feel like rehashes that simply rearrange familiar elements rather than offering fresh insights into the nature of the bond between rider and dragon). When he comes back, he finds his bedding a fetid mess, and forthwith takes it downstairs to wash.

Except while he is busy at that unpleasant task, who should take that moment to walk in but Silvina, the headwoman of Harper Hall, in charge of the housekeeping. She immediately sees through his attempt to laugh it off, although she does have the wit to understand enough of the social dynamics of the situation and create the impression that she punished Piemur rather than sympathizing with him. Instead, the real trouble came from within the drumheights, when Dirzan the drum journeyman disciplined all the apprentices for their act of vandalism -- and thus earned Piemur their permanent resentment.

And then comes the day when the urgent message comes in from the notorious Lord Meron of Nabol, who was such a villain in Dragonflight and Dragonquest, requesting the attention of the Masterhealer. As Piemur is running back to the drumheight, he slips on a step suddenly grown unnaturally slick and knocks himself out. Although Dirzan is inclined to believe Piemur was simply goldbricking, Silvina discovers the one bit of evidence the malefactors forgot to obliterate -- a bit of grease on his sole. What had started as petty harassment has gone too far and can no longer be overlooked by authority.

Authority which is now duly appalled at how they have overlooked the signs of trouble, including the fact that Piemur was too quiet, and therefore had to be keeping some kind of secret. Masterharper Robinton takes it particularly hard because he had placed Piemur in the drumheights specifically to protect him from possible blowback from some of the errands he would be running. As a result, he decided that it's absolutely essential to get Piemur out of this dangerous situation, and preferably out of Harper Hall entirely.

A Gather at Nabol Hold provides just the opportunity to get him away, with his still-healing bruises supporting his cover identity as a apprentice to a drunken herdsman. Very strange things have been going on at Nabol Hold for some time, and Piemur and Sebell are supposed to investigate them -- except that Masterharper Robinton didn't intend for Piemur to get quite so deep into his investigations. Suddenly Piemur's on the adventure of his life, which takes him far beyond his wildest dreams, to face terrible danger that opens the doors to great opportunity.

Since Dragondrums is one of the earlier Pern books, before Anne McCaffrey started pastelizing it to make it more politically correct, she gives us a realistic portrayal both of a pre-industrial social dynamic and of the physical dangers of a world bombarded by deadly spores from outer space. Yet she manages to do it without the unrelenting grimness that some writers might have filled it. The danger Piemur faces are very real, but with some skills he's picked up from Menolly and others, he's able to survive them, although he comes very close to destruction more than once. Still, the dangers are survivable ones, not monsters waiting to gobble up anyone who steps off a very narrow path or doesn't have a powerful adult protector, so we have a hopeful story of a character who gains his dreams rather than a grim one of someone who has to struggle continually just to survive unbearably harsh circumstances.

Review posted February 23, 2010.

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