When we last left Menolly, she and her fire lizards had accidentally upstaged a teaching moment, been reassured by Robinton that she was going to do well, but would still go through the wringer like any other apprentice, and been shown where she would be bunking, despite the person in charge of the house showing signs of fundamental incompatibility with Menolly.
Dragonsinger: Chapter 3: Content Notes: Sexism, misogyny
So Chapter 3 starts with the entrance examination. Menolly finds the workshop, and the noise is enough to send Beauty screaming to the rafters. The noise stops the work, and Master Jerint, after misgendering Menolly, is fascinated by the fire lizard until Master Domick comes by, gives Menolly some rude teasing, and re-sets the workshop to their tasks. Then come the instruments. Jerint reaches for a gitar, but Menolly stops him.
“It’s too green to have any tone.”
“How would you know by looking?”
So, thought Menolly, this is a sort of test for me.
“I wouldn’t chose any instrument on looks, Master Jerint, I’d choose by the sound, but I can see from here that the wood of the gitar is badly joined on the case. The neck is not straight for all it’s been veneered prettily.”
The answer evidently pleased him, for he stepped aside and gestured for her to make her own selection.
And she passes the first test, stepping around the room, feeling gitars, enjoying the sounds of one in a case, and reverently putting it back, correctly identifying it as a master’s gitar (it’s Jerint’s) before settling on one hiding in the back that’s missing an E string. Fingering chords that don’t use the missing string, she seems happy, so Jerint gets a new string. Tuned up with a full complement of strings, Menolly strikes a few different chords and chooses it for her practice gitar.
Having chosen, Domick hustles her into a practice room and commands her to play. Only play, and no help from Beauty. Menolly’s pride stings from the curtness, and so she tries to play one of the trickier songs, about a queen rider, Moreta, and manages fairly will, despite having to hit alternate fingerings for chords and completely borking a few chords because the scar won’t let her stretch far enough to get the right fingerings. Domick betrays no emotion, asks her about the “liberties” she’s taken with the Teaching Ballads and Sagas, to which Menolly counters that it was in a written copy at Half-Circle. Domick takes it in stride and has her play drum, lap harp, and play an accompaniment to his melodic line on a pipe. He asks about brass, then dismisses Menolly for food.
“Master Domick, whose was this?” She asked the question in a rush, because she had a sudden notion it might be his, which could account for his curious antagonism.
“That one? That was Robinton’s journeyman’s gitar.” Then, with a broad grin at her astonishment, Master Domick quit the room.
Of course it is. Clearly, there’s going to be a close relationship between Robinton and Menolly throughout, but I still don’t trust Robinton enough to say that it will turn it to Menolly’s benefit to have Robinton on her side.
Soon after finishing with Domick, the chaos of the schoolyard erupts as the lunch bell dings. Still unsure about everything, Menolly follows Camo’s lead and gets seated in a group of apprentices, all boys. The apprentices generally regard Menolly as out of place, thinking she should be sitting with the other girls at the back of the hall, with one exception. First, however, there is food. The change in status for Menolly is reflected in the quantities of food offered to her, which she initially only takes a little of for fear of it running out. Once assured of her food security, Menolly will eat more heartily. This is the same way that Lessa reacted to food at Benden compared to Ruatha back in Dragonflight, which makes me wonder just where the Lords Holder sit on the food chain, because characters who move out of their holds seem to improve the quality and quantity of their eating immediately. This seems more in line with the time period of the Italian city-states, where the mercantile economy meant that you needed economic power, rather than martial power, to eat well. Then again, dragons. But underneath the dragon level, the power structure seems to be giving deference to the craft guilds before the land owners and those that produce the food. Maybe the power play that the Lords Holder tried back in Dragonflight would work here, although at the cost of pissing off the Harpers, which would likely be social standing suicide.
The apprentice to Menolly’s left, who eventually introduces himself as Piemur, asks about the singing fire lizard incident from the morning, taking the perspective of someone who was being accused of taking liberties, but was successfully able to dodge the blame by virtue of being able to honestly blame something else. This is important for later.
Across from Menolly, however, is our first blatant example of sexism in the Hall.
“She shouldn’t be here,” complained the lad immediately opposite Menolly. He spoke directly to Piemur, as if by ignoring Menolly he could be rude. He was bigger and older looking than Piemur. “She belongs with them.” And he jerked his head backward, toward the girls at the hearth table.
“Well, she’s here now, and fine where she is, Ranly,” said Piemur with unexpected aggressiveness. “She couldn’t very well change once we were seated, could she? And besides, I heard that she’s to be an apprentice, same as us. Not one of them.”
“Aren’t they apprentices?” asked Menolly, inclining her head in the girls’ general direction.
“Them?” Piemur’s astounded query was as scornful as the look on Ranly’s face. “No!” The drawl in his negative put the girls in an inferior category. “They’re in the special class with the journeymen, but they’re not apprentices. No skill!”
“They’re a right nuisance,” said Ranly with rich contempt.
“Yeah, they are,” said Piemur with a reflective sigh, “but if they weren’t here, I’d have to sing treble in the plays, and that’d be dire! Hey, Bonz, pass the meat back.”
Because girls can’t be Harpers, despite, y’know, Menolly being right there. The way this is being set up, though, it doesn’t sound like the girls are thought of very highly. It would be nice if it turns out they’re all very talented, right? Since we haven’t met them, I can hold on to that hope.
So more food gets requested from Camo from Piemur, using the same speech pattern as Camo, which produces laughter from the boys at Camo (possibly laughing at getting extra meat, but I don’t think so) until it works, when they shut up.
The apprentices grill Menolly for more information about the Impression from Benden in Dragonsong, after which the chores are assigned to the apprentices and Menolly’s exam continues with Master Morshal, who teaches musical theory. Morshal has very little expectation of Menolly, but Piemur gives her an encouraging thumbs-up, despite being the shortest of the lot, missing a tooth, and with shockingly curly hair. Piemur is clearly a force for chaos against the Hall’s attempt at order.
Morshal starts Menolly out easily – major chords, then example chords from other songs, then drum technique, fingering technique for pipes, and so forth, interjecting comments about her posture, harrying her if she pauses, always calling her “girl”, and getting very annoyed when she asks to sit because of her feet. The barrage continues with written notation, and then with playing a song. Morshal picks the same song that Menolly played for Domick, and he insists that she play it as written, which we already know isn’t doable.
There were variations in the chords: two of which were really managed, but she flubbed the fourth and fifth because her scarred hand would not stretch.
“I see, I see,” he said, waving her to stop, but he liked oddly pleased. “You cannot play accurately at tempo. Very well, that is all. You are dismissed.”
“I beg your pardon, Master Morshal…” Menolly began, again extending her hand as explanation.
“You what?” He glared at her, his eyes wide with incredulity that she seemed to be defying him. “Out! I just dismissed you! What is the world coming to when girls presume to be harpers and pretend to compose music. Out! Great shells and stars!” His voice changed from scold to panic. “What’s that? What are they? Who let them in here?”
They, asshole, are the fire lizards that have been roused by your unfair treatment and who are defending Menolly by attacking the thing that is attacking her. Bad enough that Menolly is getting sexism from the apprentices, once of the masters is a giant misogynist. Here’s a good test for Robinton – there’s no doubt he will hear about this, especially since Piemur is apparently lurking right outside the scene, so let’s see what sort of action he takes against Morshal, or whether he lets it all slide. Piemur gets to pet one of the fire lizards and is also fascinated by them. Then he remembers he’s suppressed to deliver Menolly to Master Shonagar, the Voice Master, and Piemur’s clear favorite. Shonagar dismisses Piemur, and then lets on to Menolly that he’s fond of Piemur and his cheeky nature, too. Shonagar’s test is for Menolly to sing, without accompaniment from fire lizard or instrument.
“Sing, not concertize. The voice only is important now, not how you mask vocal inadequacies with pleasant strumming and clever harmony. I want to hear the voice…It is the voice we communicate with, the voice which is the words we seek to impress on men’s minds, the voice which evokes emotional response; tears, laughter, sense. Your voice is the most important, most complex, most amazing instrument of all. And if you cannot use that voice properly, you might just as well go back to whatever insignificant hold you came from.”
Menolly had been so fascinated by the richness and variety of the Master’s tones that she didn’t really pay heed to the content.
“Well?” he demanded.
She blinked at him, drawing in her breath, belatedly aware that he was waiting for her to sing.
“No, not like that! Dolt! You breathe from here,” and his fingers spread across his barrel-width midsection, pressing in so that the sound from his mouth reflected that pressure. “Through the nose, so…” and he inhaled, his massive chest barely rising as it was filled, “down to the windpipe,” and he spoke on a single musical note, “to the belly,” and the voice dropped an octave. “You breathe from your belly…if you breathe properly.”
I’m nodding along with this explanation much like a bobblehead on a stimulant. Since Petiron didn’t teach Menolly brass playing, he probably didn’t talk much about the need to breathe from the diaphragm. Whether coaching voice or wind instruments, understanding the need to provide a proper foundation of air for the tone is something that separates learning musicians from more experienced ones. So it’s nice to see some of the research being done here.
So Menolly sings for the Master, and he lets on nothing about the performance. He does give Petiron a backhanded compliment for not teaching Menolly anything about using her voice, instead leaving her up to him. It rattles Menolly and the fire lizards a bit. Shongar, of all the masters, however, realizes that the fire lizards follow Menolly’s emotional state, which makes him the smartest of the lot at this point. He makes it a point to tell Menolly to bring the fire lizards with her to his lessons, so that they will learn how to sing better as Menolly does. He sends Menolly away, and falls asleep before she leaves.
That’s the end of Chapter Three. Menolly’s first day hadn’t finished, but we’re already starting to see where the battle lines are going to be drawn. Will Robinton get involved, or will he direct the puppets from behind the scenes? We’ll find out soon enough.