Greetings, one and all! It’s time for the second book in the Harper Hall trilogy, Dragonsinger. In book one, Menolly overcame an abusive and toxic environment to be taken in as an apprentice at the Harper Hall, guest of the Masterharper himself, on the recommendation from her Hold’s old Harper, Petiron. She also discovered and lived with several fire lizards outside of her Hold before eventually landing at Benden Weyr, courtesy of Threadfall.
The big questions on my mind are whether Menolly will be able to exact closure on Yanus and whether or not we will be able to get through a Pern book without some form of physical violence being done to a named female character. On that optimistic note, here we go.
Dragonsinger, Chapters 1-2: Content Notes: prejudice, misogyny, sexism
Dragonsinger picks up immediately after the end of Dragonsong, starting with Menolly’s arrival by dragon at the Harper Hall. This is the first book examined to lack the super-spoiler-filled introduction, incidentally, despite having a similar cover style to Dragonsong before it.
We hit the ground running, however, with T’gellan really Not Getting It.
“Don’t worry so, Menolly. Just remember,” said T’gellan, gripping her shoulder in awkward reassurance, “every Harper on Pern has been trying to find Petiron’s lost apprentice…”
“Because they thought that apprentice was a boy…”
“That made no difference to Master Robinton when he asked you to come here. Times are changing, Menolly, and it’ll make no difference to the others.
Great shells, girl, you’ve lived holdless, outrun Thread, and Impressed nine fire lizards. What’s to fear from harpers?”
What, indeed? How about the Masterharper himself, who demonstrates for all of us more of that manipulative charm he displayed at the end of Dragonsong, declaring her Petiron’s lost apprentice, and showing off her skill at collecting fire lizards, before getting to his actual point.
“Furthermore,” and he raised his volume above the raged cheers of approval, “furthermore, she found another clutch, which provided me with two eggs!”
Because nothing says “force for good, tolerance, and gender equality” like stepping on someone for your own self-aggrandizement. Again, Robinton had enough tact to celebrate Menolly first, but he’s definitely earning the side-eye from me as someone to watch out for in case he turns out villainous. There’s more plot summary from the previous book, as Menolly is hustled to bed by Silvina, headwoman for the Harper Hall, and a revelation that continues to make the official story about why Petiron neglected to mention Menolly’s gender that much less likely to be anywhere resembling true.
“Just like old Petiron to forget to mention you being a girl.”
“I don’t think he forgot,” Menolly said slowly, thinking of her father and mother and their opposition to her playing. “He told me girls can’t be harpers.”
Silvina gave her a long hard look. “Maybe under another Masterharper. Or in the old days, but surely old Petiron knew his own son well enough to-”
“Petiron was Master Robinton’s father?”
“Did he never tell you that?” Silvina paused as she was spreading the sleeping fur over Menolly. “That old stubborn fool! Determined not to advance himself because his son was elected Masterharper…and them picking a place halfway to nowhere…I beg your pardon, Menolly…”
“Half-Circle Sea Hold is halfway to nowhere.”
“Not if Petiron found you there,” said Silvina, recovering her brisk tone, “and sponsored you to this Craft….”
I think Menolly is getting suspicious about the story Petiron fed her, probably to keep her from getting too excited, and thus keep her away from Yanus and Mavi’s abuse. It certainly makes my speculation about what really happened seem more plausible. Also, it suggests that what Menolly had to fear from the Harper Hall is the Harpers themselves.
Chapter One finishes with Menolly going to sleep, although with a little foreboding as she hears various voices, one of which she doesn’t particularly like the sound of. She can’t hear the content of the discussion, just the voices. Chapter Two is Menolly’s first day proper as an apprentice, which starts with washing and then hitting the kitchen for food for her and the menagerie. Along the way, we see something that indicates either a really large tech jump or that shows how old the area now known as the Harper Hall really is.
Directly in front of the staircase were dragon-high metal doors with the most curious closings she’d ever seen: on the back of the doors were wheels, which evidently turned the heavy bars into floor and ceiling. At Half-Circle Sea Hold there had been the heavy horizontal bars, but this arrangement would be easier to lock and looked much more secure.
Okay, so Pern has working examples of a counterweight locking system. (At least, that’s how I’m imagining it). What I want to know is how the Harpers have managed to stop Fandarel from taking the doors off their hinges and back to the Smith Hall so he can analyze them and create replicas so every Hold has a secure locking mechanism against a Thread (or other threat) incursion. If I had to guess, it’s that he can’t convince a dragonrider to help him carry the doors home, once he gets them free, as such doors are undoubtedly going to be very heavy.
Anyway, Silvina is busily directing traffic in the kitchen as Menolly arrives. Rather than upset the kitchen, Menolly keeps the fire lizards outside, promising them food. Silvina greets her warmly, orders up food, wonders who botched the healing on her hand, and summons up help for Menolly to get everything outside. Here we get introduced to our first mentally disabled Pern resident, Camo. The good things: Camo is treated well by Silvina and the kitchen staff, and there’s no indication that anyone thinks less of him for his disability – they understand that he does well with simple and direct instructions, sometimes repeated, and Silvina remembers to thank Camo when he does a good job. The bad: Well, Menolly mentally calls him a “half-wit”, and Camo’s speech patterns evoke the idea of Rain Man, with the repetition and such. And there’s some described-as-gentle pushing that happens to get Camo moving in the right direction.
Also, he’s fascinated by the fire lizards, and when the swarm arrives to eat in the courtyard, he stands completely still and enjoys seeing everything going on around him. Which will place him well above some of the members of the Harper Hall we will meet in due time.
So, chow happens out in a courtyard to the sounds of a choir learning and memorizing their Teaching Songs. And five of the fire lizards join in singing. Which brings Menolly into it as well, and for the song or so, there’s only the music.
They were on the last two measures of the chorus when Menolly suddenly realized that it was only herself and the fire lizards singing, that the male voices had ceased. Startled, she looked up and saw that almost every window about the courtyard was filled with faces. The exceptions were the windows of the hall where the voices had come.
“Who’s been singing?” demanded an irate tenor, and a man’s head appeared at one of the empty windows.
“Why, that’s a grand way to wake up, Brudegan,” said the clear baritone of the Masterharper from Stone point above Menolly and to her left. Craning her head up, she saw him leaning out of his window on the upper story.
“Good morning to you, Masterharper,” said Brudegan courteously, but his tone indicated that he was disgruntled by the intervention.
Menolly tried to sit small, wishing herself between: she was certainly frozen motionless.
Good morning, Harper Hall. Nice to meet you?
This seems believable, though. In a place where music is the craft that someone learns, it makes sense that as many places as possible are acoustically sound. The only thing missing from this description is how loud everyone was singing. I would assume that it isn’t actually very loud at all, because Menolly is still quite nervous and there’s already singing going on, but Menolly is eating in the right place for the acoustics to carry her and the lizards’ voices much farther than intended. Silvina arrives to rescue Menolly from embarrassment and ships her up to Robinton with his morning klah and breakfast, where Robinton and Menolly have a heart-to-heart.
“Still not sure, are you, young Menolly?” He didn’t mean the fire lizards’ abilities. There was such kindness in his voice and eyes that Menolly felt unexpected tears behind her eyes.
“I don’t want to be a nuisance…”
“Allow me to differ both to statement and content, Menolly…” Then he sighed. “You’re overyoung to appreciate the value of nuisance, although the improvement in that choir is a point in my argument. However, is much too early in the morning for me to expound philosophy.”
“We’re in a period of change and readjustment, Menolly,”…”And you are likely to be a vital part of that change. Yesterday I exerted an unfair pressure on you to join the Harper Hall…Oh yes, I did, but you belong here!”
“First,”…”we must discover just how well Petiron taught you the fundamentals of our craft and what you need to further your gifts. And…” he pointed now to her left hand, “…what can be fine to correct that scar damage. I’d still like to hear you play the songs you wrote.”
“We need you, when you can craft songs like those Petiron sent me and the ones Elgion found stuck away at the back of the harper’s shelves in Half-Circle. Yes, and that’s a matter I’d better explain…” he went on, smoothing the hair at the back of his neck and, to Menolly’s amazement, appearing to be embarrassed.
Helloooooo, resolved plot point! Also, Menolly apparently hid them well enough that neither Yanus nor Mavi found them to destroy them (Yanus, remember, can apparently tell variant chords apart), which…suggests they didn’t go looking for them? Or if they found them, assumed they were Elgion’s? Or Elgion found them immediately upon arrival and sent them away as soon as he found them? I don’t know, and Menolly doesn’t ask.
Also, Robinton only appeared embarrassed here. Considering what we’ve seen of his apparently Jedi abilities at persuasion, I’m not sure I should ever trust anyone who comments on Robinton’s state of mind. In any case, Robinton explains that he finished up Menolly’s tune about the fire-lizards and praises her abilities, much to her chagrin, because recovering from an abusive environment takes time and positive reinforcement, and she promised Yanus, you see…
Startled, she looked up at his stern tone.
“I want you to promise me – and you’re now my apprentice – I want you to promise me to write down any tune that comes into your mind: I want you to play it as often as necessary to get it right…do you understand me? That’s why I brought you here.” He tapped the slate again. “That was a good song even before I tampered with it. I need good songs badly.
What I said about change affects the Harper Hall more than any other craft, Menolly, because we are the ones who effect change. Just as we teach with our songs, so we also help people accept new ideas and necessary changes. And for that we need a special type of harpering.
Now, I still have to consider Craft and standards. Especially in your unusual situation, the conventional procedure must be observed. Once we’ve dispensed with the signatories, we can proceed with your training as fast as you want to go. But this is where you belong, Menolly, you and your singing fire lizards. Bless me but that was lovely to hear this morning.”
Have I mentioned yet about how Robinton understands what kind of power he wields in Pern? Because he clearly gets it. He’s also trying to get Menolly over the fears and into his upper echelons fast. But he’s not willing to bend his own traditions and the process to do it. It’s probably mostly for the optics and to not appear like he’s playing favorites with anyone, but it does mean that Menolly will be subjected to the culture of the Hall. Which is not likely to include female harpers and apprentices, so congratulations, Menolly, if you want to punch your ticket to doing what you’ve always wanted, you’re going to have to run the glass ceiling gauntlet.
Robinton’s philosophizing is interrupted with the arrival of Master Oldive, the healer, whose head is permanently slanted to one side, apparently, which makes him shorter than Menolly. Who is supposed to be tall, if I recall correctly. The slant comes from “a terrible malformation of his spine”. Oldive checks over Menolly’s feet and hands, giving her a cream for the feet and physical therapy exercises for her hands to stretch the scar tissue, break it down, and regain her full range of motion in her hand. After he leaves, Silvina returns to get Menolly settled in a dormitory, and they discuss Petiron and why he did so many things for her, but without telling her about the Harper Hall, lending still more credence to the idea that Petiron didn’t forget to mention Menolly’s gender, but that he couldn’t. Silvina mentions that Menolly will need a gitar, which provokes a flashback for Menolly about the beating Yanus gave her when she supposedly went off script with the fosterlings. Menolly shows her reed pipes as a way of getting off that line of questioning. Fire lizard food logistics are discussed (and Silvina shuts down an attempt by Menolly to apologize for being a bother.), and they arrive to see Dunca, who oversees the women’s quarters at the Hall. Menolly notices another of the metal doors, smaller this time. Again, Fandarel would probably want it.
Dunca promptly flips the fuck out at the presence of one fire lizard, dismisses the last resident of her available room as a “hysterical girl who’ll panic during Threadfall and scare us all with imagining that Thread is actually in the cottage”, calls other girls (her drudge(s)?) “lazy sluts” for not having proper amounts of light in the cottage, freaks out at Silvina opening the shutters on the windows, and then goes into a complete panic as the other eight fire lizards arrive in the sparse room.
All of which apparently amuses Silvina. Menolly can see the writing on the wall about how well she’s going to get on with Dunca, but Silvina believes its all to keep the Hall women from falling prey to all the boys competing over them, that she may hold an issue because Dunca wanted to get Petiron after his wife died, and that she just fears change in general. Now, if I were an otherwise empathetic headwoman tasked with finding a good spot to sleep for my still-likely-emotionally-fragile charge and the only room at the inn has an innkeeper who will clash horribly with my resident, I’d say “Fuck this. Menolly, you can stay in the guest room for a little while longer while we wait for something better to open up.” Because there is space elsewhere. But, because the narrative wishes it, Silvina has to let Menolly stay anywhere she’s likely going to hate, with someone who likely hates her. Because the narrative still feels the need to punish Menolly, I guess? Or for cheap drama? Likely both.
In any case, Chapter Two closes with Menolly stepping into the instrument creation lab, to find Master Jerint and get herself a gitar.