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Dragonsong by Anne McCaffrey

Published by Bantam Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

After the success of Dragonflight and Dragonquest, Anne McCaffrey was asked to write a story about a young person on Pern. After much initial struggle, she began writing the story of a girl playing the deathsong at the funeral of their Sea Hold's deceased Harper.

Menolly's father isn't happy about it, because he has definite ideas about what girls should be like and what they should be doing. But not a one of the men consider themselves qualified to do the job properly, and they all insist that the only possible candidate is the Seaholder's own youngest daughter, the one he despises as not a proper girl at all.

And as soon as old Petiron is buried at sea in accordance with Seaholder customs, there is the problem of making sure that the children keep up with their lessons in the time it takes for Harper Hall to send a new Harper. It would disgrace the Seahold for the children to be discovered to have fallen behind and forgotten some of the all-important Teaching Ballads by which they learn their duties to Hold, Hall and Weyr, the three legs of the Pernese social tripod. Yanus doesn't like the thought of letting Menolly do it, because he thinks it will give her more ideas above her station in life after Petiron spoiled her and let her indulge in her whimsies of making up tunes of her own. But he has no choice but to set her at the task, although he makes one strict stipulation -- there will be absolutely no tuning from her, no melodies of her own devising. Only the traditional songs, in the traditional manner, with no interpretation or commentary.

And when she unthinkingly modulates the ending note of one into a note of her own and he hears her, he gives her a savage beating and takes away her assignment. The new Harper is almost here, so it's not like the children will be without lessons for long.

When the new Harper arrives, Menolly is soon surrounded by subtle pressures to keep her away from him, to make sure she does not attract his attention in any way or arouse his curiosity. She's dumped with a continual stream of unpleasant chores to keep her too busy to attempt to arrange an accidental-on-purpose encounter. She's not even permitted to sing loudly -- according to her mother, because she is now of the age when a young lady learns to sing softly and demurely, but it can't be the truth because her next-older sister is allowed to bellow off-tune so loud everyone can hear her.

And then comes the day when the ships come in with a big catch and she's gutting slimy packtail fish, only to have her blade slip and gash her hand. For days she lies delirious from the resulting infection, and there's some question about whether her hand can be saved. Even when the infection wanes, her hand is left twisted like a claw, making it impossible for her to play any instrument. And everyone around her acts like she has no right to mourn the loss, that she's being selfish and self-pitying -- in fact, it seems almost like her parents are just as glad that she'll never be able to play again and can now be bullied more effectively into applying herself to something more practical.

Under such pressure and feeling increasingly friendless, she takes to wandering alone along the shoreline to gather edible greens and shoreline invertebrates. One morning she goes out particularly early and wanders along the rocks where she'd earlier glimpsed fire lizards, tiny relatives of the dragons, cavorting in the air. She's so deep in thought she doesn't even realize how far she's gone until she sees the silvery color of Threadfall on the horizon and realizes there's no way to get back to the Seahold before she's caught in the open and devoured by Thread.

Except she can hear a humming sound coming from an opening in the ground, and realizes that there's a cave that might just provide sufficient shelter. As a result, she is witness to the Hatching of a clutch of fire lizard eggs, and in her efforts to protect these tiny creatures so much like the dragons she ends up Impressing nine of them.

Thus begins her new life, in which she learns how to survive holdless. Unable to live entirely without music, she makes herself a set of pan-pipes and discovers that if she stretches her fingers, she can steadily increase the range of motion in them. Perhaps her hand isn't completely ruined after all. Better yet, the fire lizards are responding to her playing with a soft harmonic hum. For the first time in her life she has a willing audience who responds to her music with genuine delight.

But living holdless during a Pass is a precarious lifestyle, as she discovers one day when yet again she gets caught out as Threadfall approaches. She's desperately running across the shingle in hopes of getting back to her cave in time when she's suddenly rescued by a dragonrider, T'gran, and taken to Benden Weyr. There she gets treatment for her lacerated feet and the weyrfolk insist that her having Impressed the fire lizards means she is a sort of dragonfolk and must henceforth live in the Weyr.

At this point we finally get to see that this story is running parallel to Dragonquest, particularly when Menolly gets to witness the Hatching at which Lord Jaxom of Ruatha Impresses Ruth the White Dragon. And of course the Hatching brings many notables to the Weyr, among them people very interested in finding Petiron's missing apprentice. As a result, it's not long before Menolly's true identity is realized, and thus the promise of the very beginning, the dreams frustrated by her father's hidebound ideas about gender roles, finally comes to its full fruition.

In many ways the story may seem dated in retrospect, very much a piece of its time, when women were still struggling to be able to pursue their chosen career paths in the face of heavy pressure to conform to others' notions of what a woman should want to do. Particularly now that a number of the more recent novels have heavily pastelized Pernese culture and made it more acceptable to modern politically correct attitudes, Yanus' attitude toward his daughter seems particularly jarring. But in a pre-Industrial society living on a very narrow margin, there would be very little surplus to spare for people wanting to step outside of the normal roles for their group and possibly failing disastrously at it. As a result, such rigid gender roles are not such a surprising situation and someone who truly could not fit in their assigned slot would have an uphill battle to just be themself.

Review posted August 29, 2010

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