The Masterharper of Pern by Anne McCaffrey
Cover art by Gerald Brom
Published by Del Rey Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
Many years ago, when I first read this novel, I was involved in a discussion on Virtual Selyn, the Sime~Gen mailing list, about the difference between professional and fan fiction. Most people came up with the usual criteria -- whether one is writing in a universe to which you have legal rights, or writing in someone else's universe without formal authorization, whether one is being paid for one's work or just doing it for the sheer fun of it, and of course the old saws about quality, whether real or perceived. Just as everybody started thinking that the matter had been discussed to death, someone suggested that (aside from venue of publication) fan fiction was fiction written for fans. That is, fiction that was written with the assumption that the reader was familiar with the background of the fictional universe and did not need it explained any more than a reader of a mainstream novel would need to have Chicago or New York explained.
The Masterharper of Pern certainly would fit that last description. It starts with the assumption that you already know and care about the world of Pern, and that you're reading because you want to know more about a favorite character. Robinton started as a "spearbearer," a walkon character who was just to appear long enough to deliver an important bit of information in Dragonflight, then leave. However, Robinton took a life of his own and Anne McCaffrey wrote him an ever-increasing part in subsequent novels. Because this novel is first and foremost Robinton's biography, there really isn't any compelling plotline that would carry this book on its own as an independent novel. It keeps you turning pages simply because you want to know how things happened to make Robinton into the man we knew so well in the original Dragonriders and Harper Hall trilogies.
For instance, when he prepared to marry Kasia, I knew that something awful had to happen, since he was always a lonely and solitary man in the original books. That dreadful anticipation kept me reading through several near misses to the woman's tragic death. And as Robinton became involved romantically with Silvana, headwoman of Harper Hall, I wondered what circumstances would bring about the birth of poor Camo, the simple-minded kitchen worker who was so important in Dragonsinger and Dragondrums.
However, there were a couple places where it seemed to me that Anne McCaffrey liked her character a little too much, and got him involved in major historical incidents that it was unlikely he actually would have been present. For instance, he just happens to be assigned at High Reaches Hold when the notorious Lord Fax gets his beginnings, and he seems to be quite close to Weyrleader F'lon (father of F'lar and F'nor). One could simply read this as a Pernese equivalent of the historical romance genre, along the lines of Herman Wouk's famous World War II duology The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, in which the major characters often have highly improbable numbers of encounters with key turning points in history, including the family patriarch being captain of Admiral Halsey's flagship during the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
More vexing are the problems of inconsistancy with the background established in the earlier books, some of which seem to be partly due to a pandering to political correctness. For instance, things that had seemed like long-standing problems were treated as having cropped up only within the last generation at most. The world of the original trilogy and the Harper Hall books seemed much darker, more patriarchial, yet this book has women holding responsible positions in various crafts in Robinton's youth, and that is treated as normal and typical, rather than rare women who by their exception prove the rule. Some people have suggested that the extreme patriarchialism Menolly faced in the Harper Hall trilogy was just that of her father, but that she had no other reality checks, and therefore assumed it was true of the wider society as well. However, there are other details here and there in the original trilogy, particularly the first two books, that suggest that women's roles were quite restricted prior to the upheavals brought about by F'lar's innovations in response to a Threadfall nobody thought would ever happen again.
Less easy to shrug away are the things that were portrayed as F'lar's innovations in Dragonflight -- Searching for boys outside the Weyr, having non-Weyrfolk present at Hatchings, etc -- but in this book are portrayed as having been the norm well before that novel's setting. Also, in the original trilogy, paper was portrayed as a new innovation, whereas the norm had been "hides" (presumably parchment), but in this book, it appears that paper was in common use before that. These little inconsistencies aren't really enough to completely destroy the willing suspension of disbelief, but for a reader who's been following the Pern series from the beginning, each little detail that's off in one way or another jars.
On the whole, I would say that it's not one of the best Pern books, but neither is it one of the worst. Someone who's been a long-time fan of Pern and particularly of Masterharper Robinton,, is going to enjoy reading more of the backstory of this long-running favorite character. However, I cannot really recommend it as a new reader's first introduction to Pern, for the simple reason that so much of its charm lies in the discovery of the stories behind the stories that one already knows so well.
Review posted November 30, 2011.
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