(by Silver Adept)
Well, after the ball of fail and triggers that was Dragonquest, we return to the world of Pern for an entirely different trilogy, the Harper Hall trilogy.
Worth noting here is that, despite being the third Pern book written, chronologically speaking, it is likely to be the first book that readers encounter involving the world. This is thanks to bookstores, libraries, and others marketing this trilogy in their children’s and teens sections, due to the age of the primary protagonists. Does this mean that these stories will be more like the boys’ adventure story chapters that we saw with Jaxom and Felessan?
Well, the main character of this book is Menolly, a young woman. So let’s say my expectations are not very high. Time to get underway.
This version of the book opens with the same spoiler data as the previous two, another fairly clear addition based on current continuity, rather than the likely available material at publication. The only important thing to note is that Dragonsong starts seven Turns after the time skip. So it’s set concurrently to the events of Dragonquest, theoretically. Let’s see if the timelines stay lined up.
Dragonsong: Chapter One: Content Notes: Sexism ahoy, domestic abuse
Chapter One opens with the preparations for a funerary rite. Which suggests that the will be more worldbuilding in this particular chapter than there has been in the two previous books. That will be… refreshing. Anyway, the Harper attached to the Half-Circle Sea Hold has died, and it falls to the Sea Holder, Yanus, to ensure his funeral goes appropriately, including the singing of the correct songs. Yanus has asked around of all the people in the Hold with musical talent, and had been told the same thing – not I, but your youngest daughter, Menolly, she can. Which aggravates Yanus and his wife, Mavi, because neither of them is fond of the thought that Menolly wants to become a Harper, instead of taking an interest in those things that are proper for a young girl in a Sea Hold.
Given the way the narrative has treated women who have ideas about breaking out of “traditional” roles and doing what they want to do so far, I would place a money bet that Menolly is going to be injured, killed, or psychologically scarred by her parents before the book is over. If not her parents, then a random event will do it, instead. This is also making me wonder whether the classification as a kid or teen book is because they saw the age of the protagonist and forgot to read the actual content.
After the brief interlude of how her parents disapprove of her career aspirations, we go to the actual burial at sea. Menolly is able to perform the Deathsong, but collapses in tears afterward, with a brief memory of the Harper, Petiron, who is definitely a progressive voice on Pern. Petiron sent some compositions of Menolly’s to Robinton, a sure sign of his respect for her talent. Alas, gender roles have already taken hold in Menolly’s mind.
“Women can’t be Harpers,” she’d said to Petiron, astonished and awed.
“One in ten hundred have perfect pitch,” Petiron had said in one of his evasive replies. “One in ten thousand can build an acceptable melody with meaningful words. We’re you only a lad, there’d be no problem at all.”
“Well, we’re stuck with me being a girl.”
“You’d make a fine big strong lad, you would,” Petiron had replied exasperatingly.
“And what’s wrong with being a fine big strong girl?” Menolly had been half-teasing, half-annoyed.
“Nothing, surely. Nothing.”
For which the end of days for this brilliant man were either dementia or Alzheimer’s or another neurological disease. Even in the secondary characters, the narrative punishes the progressives. Also, based on this exchange, I’m imagining Menolly as a tall, broad-shouldered, solidly built and muscular woman until the narrative says otherwise. And even then, I might tell the narrative to fuck off. Because, if the narrative seems to be setting Menolly up as a tomboy, I don’t want her to look small and weak so that the narrative can try to make us believe she deserves the abuse she’s going to get.
Having sung her elegy, the boat returns, Menolly steps off, and the work of fishing begins immediately after. Life continues, and Yanus is orchestrating the moving-on as fast as he can. Mavi is doing her part to erase any trace of the Harper by organizing the children that would be receiving instruction into work crews to take care of errands at the Hold. Menolly runs her appointed task (checking to make sure all the glows – fungus used as light sources in the caves – are properly topped up so they shine well) with an efficiency of practice that Fandarel would approve of, which puts her at the Harper’s door in time to hear an argument between her mother and Soreel, the wife of another Holder, about who will teach the children, since it’s unlikely a new Harper will arrive until spring. Both Mavi and Yanus don’t want Menolly in that role, because sexism and because Menolly, not yet fifteen, has a knack for improvising earworms outside of the official canon. Yanus can’t find a way to put someone else in charge, though, and neither can Mavi, because apparently doing MANLY THINGS like the tasks of fishing removes your ability to play complex rhythms and callouses your hands in the wrong way, so Menolly gets the job, but not without threats from Yanus.
“But I’ll have no more of those finger-twiddlings of yours.”
“I sang my songs when Petiron was alive and you never minded them…”
Yanus frowned down at his tall daughter.
“Petiron was alive. He’s dead now, and you’ll obey me in this…”
Over her father’s shoulders, Menolly saw her mother’s drowning face, saw her warning headshake, and held back a quick reply.
“You’ll bear in mind what I’ve said!” And Yanus fingered the wide belt he wore. “No tuning!”
Once in the hallway, Mavi gripped her daughter’s arm hard. “Don’t disobey him, girl.”
“There’s no harm in my tunes, mother. You know what Petiron said…”
“I’ll remind you the old man’s dead. And that changes everything that went on during his life. Behave yourself while you stand in a man’s place. No tuning! Too bed now, and mind you turn the glowbaskets. No sense wasting light no eye needs.”
Because everyone knows that threatening your daughter with a beating is completely the right way to enforce discipline. Fuck you, Yanus, you shit-eating asshole.
Also, it is apparently a rule of Pern that named men in relationships with named women abuse their women in some way, usually physically. The way that Mavi warns Menolly off of crossing Yanus makes it sound entirely like this is not the first time Yanus had used the belt on Mavi and Menolly. Assuming that Yanus uses the belt and doesn’t just beat Menolly and Mavi with his hands.
Because it’s a children’s book, it’s only a threat, but it’s the kind of threat that leaves nothing to the imagination. And I have a sinking feeling it’s not going to be a threat before we’re done.
Secondly, Yanus and Mavi are supposed to be Menolly’s parents. So what’s with the exceedingly formal address between daughter and parents? Yes, Yanus. No harm, mother. Don’t cross him, girl. Not a familiar address in the whole sequence, so the implication here is that nobody in the family is particularly fond of each other. Not like we need any familial bonds or anything when things that can kill you are falling on irregular patterns outside.
There is one nice thing – nailed it on Menolly’s height. Although she’s not so tall as to be taller than Yanus, so that he can still be scary and intimidating and exert his patriarchal authority on her. If she was taller than him, well, then she might get it in her head to punch him out or something for his abuse. The narrative couldn’t have that, even though I’m desperately hoping she does just that to Yanus, and soon.
I really was hoping for something different, but it seems like we’re only going to get more of the same. Places, everyone.