Dragonsong and Dragonsinger, by Anne McCaffrey, for Retro Friday

I have a slew of books read for the Cybils whimpering to be reviewed, but my brain is fried. So today I offer two books that blew my mind back when I was 12 or so--Dragonsong (1976) and Dragonsinger (1977) by Anne McCaffrey, for Retro Friday.

I will now try to type the first line of Dragonsinger from memory (it's been a number of years since I've re-read it): "When Menolly, daughter of Yanus Seaholder, arrived at the Harper Crafthall, she came in style, aboard a bronze dragon." (I scored 100%)

Menolly lives on the planet of Pern, a place where dragons flame a deadly organism called Thread (nasty stuff, that devours anything organic it touches) from the sky. The seahold (carved out of solid rock, like most Pernese settlements, so as to be safe from Thread) where Menolly grew up had rigid ideas about gender roles. Menolly, wonderfully talented in every aspect of music, was the protegee of the harper, but when he died, her father regarded her as an embarrassment. After her hand is almost crippled by an injury that puts a stop to her playing, she can't stand life in the repressive sea hold and runs away to live by herself.

Happily for Menolly, she isn't lonely for long. The cove where she chooses to live is home to fire lizards, small cousins of the dragons, and she manages to form a psychic bond with nine of fire lizard hatchlings. They are company, but still she longs for music, and dreams of the Harper Hall, Pern's central institute for music.

Through a somewhat complex series of events, Menolly arrives at the great caverns of the Harper Hall (on board a bronze dragon)....and Dragonsinger begins.

Imagine a boarding school book in which all the lessons are about music--instrumental, vocal, composition....Imagine this boarding school is on another planet, with different customs, technology, and dragons (and marvellous, beautiful, firelizards who can share your heart...), and complicated political situations taking place that Menolly only dimly understands, but which provided much depth to the story. And imagine Menolly herself, whisked from cave life into this setting, confused and disoriented...and facing considerable disapprobation from both the pampered girl students, who are ancillary to the central school, and from masters and boys who resent her for being a girl (and for being better than them!). All the while she has to contend with the challenge of her injured hand--will she be able to regain full use of it, and achieve her full potential as an instrumentalist?

Menolly's journey from scared waif to confident musician is a truly enjoyable experience. McCaffery includes such a wealth of detail in her telling that I can hardly think of any other book that is clearer in my mind (although the fact that I've read it c. 100 times might be a factor). I especially love the detailed music-specific bits--what is it like to play in a string quartet, sight-reading the music, with some the best musicians on your planet? And the scene where she chooses a guitar from the instrument store room is the best guitar choosing scene ever.

I do hope that other 11/12 year olds girls are still finding this book...it is so much fun! And even inspirational, although as a cynical adult Menolly's musical wonderfulness grates just a tad (or maybe a bit more that a tad....).

It's interesting to look a my old paperback copy of this. I've read so much modern middle grade fiction recently that the text of this one looks horribly small and dense--it's 240 pages, but it would probably be about 500-600 as a modern hardcover, with curlicue pictures of firelizards in the margins. The modern version on Amazon, with a very different cover, is 320 pages....(I like the covers from my childhood books, shown here, best!)

Note on age--Menolly's an adolescent girl, just beginning, toward the end of Dragonsinger, to think about boys. They are both perfectly clean reads, but fairly sophisticated, language-wise. McCaffery might be writing about a young girl, but she doesn't write down to her audience at all.


  1. Two of my all-time favorites! And now I am sorely tempted to go read my own much-loved copies (I have the same covers you posted, which I love). Just reading this post sends all the memories flooding back. I loved that they were books I could just sink into and revel in the details of the world (the music stuff, the Harper Hall traditions, Menolly's adventures feeding her firelizards in the wild)

    I still really, really wish we had gotten a third Menolly-book rather than a Piemur book in Dragondrums!

  2. Wow! Those are some of my favorites too. I have also read them many times even though I came to them as an adult. I also liked Dragondrums for a boy's perspective on being a Harper. Great stories!

  3. Oh, I loved these two books as a kid (I was slightly older than you when I found them, and they weren't new) as, I'm happy to say, do my older girls. It's a fabulously written series.

    Which reminds me, I was shelving books at the library the other day, and I discovered Anne McCaffrey's written a slew of other books (of course; I just never really thought of her outside of the Pern books). Are any of them any good?

  4. Oh, I loved these dragonrider books as a child! (I even once wrote Anne McCaffrey a fan letter, but chickened out of sending it because I didn't think she would want to read it.)

    I also loved her CRYSTAL SINGER, which I still re-read occasionally because it's so good.

  5. Used to love McCaffrey. Haven't read anything by her recently; I may have to go pick up an old copy of something!

    Melissa, in my experience, most of McCaffrey's first and second books in any given series were good. By the third book and on she seemed to be losing interest.

    This does *not* mean there are only 2 good Pern books, it just means there seem to be 2 in any given series (Menolly, Lissa, and so on).

    That said, after a while, I did start wondering about some of her gender assumptions and roles. Menolly does ok, but parts of the F'laar (F'lar?) and F'nor romances with Lissa and Brekke are not so good.

  6. Yes, absolute all-time favorites - I loved, loved, loved these books (and Anne McCaffrey more generally - but to me these two were always the best).

  7. I second the recommendation of Crystal Singer-very good and very intersting (one of the few books I re-read lots in which I don't actually like the heroine much at all!) But the second and third books are only ok.

    Likewise, The Ship Who Sang is well worth reading, although rather odd, but like Bookwyrme says about McCaffery in general, the series peters out...

  8. When I was twelve, my school librarian convinced me to read these. I loved them, and went on to read the rest of the Pern books, too. I've reread DRAGONSONG in the years since, but not the others. I should probably get on that.


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