Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Ted reviews Anne McCaffrey's Dragonsong

Back in the day, me and most of my friends were what you’d call nerds. We preferred the company of our computers over other human beings, we took advanced math classes and liked them, and the only books we read were genre fiction: sci-fi and fantasy.

Clearly—clearly—I’m much cooler now than I was then, but my memories of those genre authors remain. I read them by the handful: David Eddings, J.R.R. Tolkien, Timothy Zahn, Patricia C. Wrede, and all the rest. But one of the big names, one of the truly big-time fantasy authors, I never got into, and that was Anne McCaffrey, author of the long-running (18 novels and counting!) ‘Dragonriders of Pern’ series. Thanks to my class on fantasy last semester, I finally had the chance to read one of Mrs. McCaffrey’s novels, Dragonsong, and I have to say: this is what all the fuss was about?

Don’t get me wrong: the world she’s built is interesting enough (a fantasy world with a sci-fi backing; thus, scientifically feasible dragons), and the story isn’t terrible (young girl with musical talent who’s prohibited from expressing it due to the patriarchy ends up adopting a nest of fire-lizards, a.k.a. mini-dragons). But the writing is just so bland and awful that it was a struggle for me to get through more than a dozen pages at a stretch.

McCaffrey is guilty of Writer Sin #1, breaking the Big Rule that every writing teacher from your high school English teacher on up will tell you: Show, Don’t Tell. Here's a bit from early in the book:
This mild deviation from the absolute obedience to her father's restriction about tuning did much to ease Menolly's growing frustration and loneliness. What Menolly didn't realize was that her mother had been watching her closely, having recognized the signs of rebellion in her. Mavi didn't want the Hold to be disgraced in any way, and she feared that Menolly, her head turned by Petiron's marked favor, was not mature enough to discipline herself. Sella had warned her mother that Menolly was getting out of hand. Mavi put some of that tale down to sisterly envy. But, when Sella had told Mavi that Menolly had actually started to teach another how to play an instrument, Mavi had been obliged to intervene. Let Yanus get one whisper of Menolly's disobedience and there'd be real trouble in the Hold for the girl.
Is it just me, or would this whole passage work better if, I don't know, we actually got to see some of it happening? If we actually got to see first-hand some of these family dynamics and relationships, rather than just having them explained to us? Yeah, if McCaffrey wrote like that, the book would be about twice as long as it is now, but it’d probably be a better book for it. Example two:
That was the end of the first of Menolly's difficult days...As Menolly wearily got to her cubicle, her mother arrived to berate her soundly...Menolly was given no chance to explain.
That's a perfect opportunity to show the relationship between our protagonist and her mother, which is one of the most important relationships in the book. As it is, the distance that this telling-instead-of-showing creates makes for a reading experience that was alternately boring and confusing for me.

Moreover, this book is one of nineteen books in the Dragonriders of Pern series, and Wikipedia tells me that “while characters drop in and out of the stories, the major players are repeated in most of them in smaller or lesser roles...some of the books feature overlapping timeframes, describing the same events from different viewpoints.” Dragonsong is the fourth book that McCaffrey wrote in this world, and the events of the previous three come up in this book. In fact, not only do they come up, they're pretty central: by the end, there were a handful of characters I'd never met before whose lives and personalities were driving the plot that was, up until that point, about Menolly and her being prevented from doing what she wants. Who's Lessa? What's all this about the Southern Continent and the Southern Weyr? What happened to Brekke, and why should I care? Ultimately I got the feeling that things would make a lot more sense if I'd read the previous trilogy, but that I still wouldn't like this book any better.

One last note: every chapter in this book opens with a short bit of poetry or song lyrics, which ties into Menolly's desire to make music. Most of them are all right, kind of basic faux-medieval ditties, but a couple really don't scan:
Lord of the Hold, your charge is sure
In thick walls, metal doors, and no verdure

The little queen, all golden
Flew hissing at the sea.
To keep it back,
To turn it back
She flew forth bravely.

Seriously, was her editor asleep at the wheel? Because unless my Syllable Sense is malfunctioning, both of those snippets skip a beat or two.

Final grade for Dragonsong: C-. Decent idea, okay characters, but poorly constructed and assumes that the reader has knowledge of McCaffrey’s other works.

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