Dragonsinger by Anne McCaffrey. Read by Sally Darling.
I love Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books, of which the Harper Hall trilogy was my favorite. Dragonsinger is my favorite of that trilogy. It doesn’t have the big sweeping drama of some of the other books, but it is a deeply satisfying coming-of-age story with lots of music and fire lizards. Menolly, our introverted, shy but extremely talented protagonist, has just arrived at Harper Hall as an apprentice. She was recruited by the Master Harper of Pern and brought on the back of a bronze dragon – but she quickly learns that things aren’t going to continue on that triumphant note. She’s housed with a group of snooty girls who are there as paid students, mostly with very low musical skills. The mistress of the cottage, Dunca, is terrified by Menolly’s fire lizards and sets out to humiliate Menolly and make her feel inadequate and unwelcome at every turn. The Masters who are assigned to test her skill levels seem convinced that she can’t possibly be as good as all that, and try to shame her out. Despite these barriers, Menolly has support from the beginning. The Masterharper, Robinton, tells her that the masters will be tough on her, but she just has to go through formalities. His journeyman, Sebell, is also supportive, and the headmistress of the house, Silvina, is a motherly figure. Menolly is also befriended by the youngest Harper Hall apprentice, Piemur, a curly-haired young scamp with an interest in fire lizards and talent for trouble. Over the course of a single week, Menolly navigates the social world, finds her musical place, and gains friends and self-confidence. She doesn’t have to win over the whole hall; she needs to comfortable herself and know that she has enough allies to make it.
There are a few things that felt off for me – I have always wondered why, for instance, Menolly’s Harper in her home hold would have considered proper breathing too difficult to teach himself. The treatment of Camo, the “half-witted” kitchen drudge, has always made me uncomfortable as well. It’s rare, of course, for people with serious mental disabilities to show up in fiction at all, and maybe some treatment is better than complete silence. Still, I have trouble figuring out why he’s there and how it benefits the story or the reader to have a character who can’t do anything but the most basic of jobs with close supervision and who is described as a “numb-wit” “half-wit” and “lack-wit.” Sally Darling I think had a bit more trouble reading this book. Harper Hall is a largely male establishment, and Darling does not quite manage to establish unique voices for all of the male characters, so they can run together a bit. Also, I know it’s harder in a book with made-for-the-book songs like this, but I really would have appreciated Darling actually singing the songs that appear at the beginning of each chapter and sprinkled throughout the book. I know not every reader can be Katherine Kellgren, but something like her reading of Bloody Jack, with all the songs appropriately sung would have been just perfect here. Despite these shortcomings, it’s still an excellent book, one I’ll keep rereading and recommending.