Many a woman who found her love of reading early will fondly reminisce about her ‘horse period’ – when she read anything she could get her hands on that had to do with horses, such as the Marguerite Henry books (Misty of Chincoteague!) and Black Beauty. There’s a smaller and more select group that can reminisce about their ‘dragon period.’ I say this because I know: I went through both. However, unlike horses, my love of dragons and dragon-lore has lasted well into adulthood. And those early dragon books that I devoured were written by the likes of Jane Yolen, Patricia C. Wrede and Anne McCaffrey.
Dragonsong is the first book in McCaffrey’s Harper Hall trilogy, a set of sci-fi books for younger readers – today we’d probably call them middle grade. The series is set on the planet Pern, where colonists fight the life-threatening Thread that falls from space with dragonfire (it’s all explained in less fantastic terms than that in the book, trust me). The story follows gifted musician Menolly, youngest daughter of the head of fishing-centric Half Circle Hold, as she struggles against the restrictions of Hold life and traditions that state that women cannot be Harpers. The injustice finally becomes too much and Menolly flees, only to discover a nest of fire lizards, a new life, and a destiny that will take her far from anything she has ever known.
Oh, this book. I must have gotten it at a Scholastic book sale or similar, because I distinctly remember that I bought it because: DRAGONS! and also because there was a $1.99 sale sticker on the front cover. And then, after I was swept into the world of Pern and dragons and fire lizards, I discovered it was the first in a trilogy and had to read the next two immediately. Thank goodness for libraries.
The main thing I remember feeling when I read this as a child was just how unfair life was for Menolly. Rereading it now as an adult I still feel the injustice of her situation, even to the point of tears – but it is tempered now with knowledge. Menolly’s life is narrow because she lives on a colonized planet, in a very traditional community, and there are no options for, or knowledge of, anything different. Her family forbids her musical tinkering not solely out of spite, as I thought when I was younger, but out of fear. Half Circle Hold is a patriarchal, sexist society that doesn’t know how to change for the better, so it keeps a stranglehold on Menolly. And it is that attitude that eventually forces her flight into the unknown.
Of course, that flight is what saves Menolly, but it also breaks her spirit and effectively cuts her off from the past. This is one of the clearest examples I can think of in fantasy and science fiction of leaving the past and pushing into the future. It’s an effective narrative to be sure, but I now also think of it as a metaphor for all sci-fi: leaving the repressive, traditional world of the past and pressing on into the future and new and greater heights.
But I mentioned dragons! Well, I’ll deliver (to a degree). Menolly encounters fire lizards, the dragons’ smaller cousins, and these tiny creatures are not only her personal salvation, but they are also her introduction to the life she was meant to live – with enlightened friends and the possibility to follow her musical dreams. I won’t say any more about the book, as you should just read it yourself. It’s wonderful, and for all ages.
Recommended for: fans of adventurous middle grade fiction, those who enjoy (or would like a well-written introduction to) science fiction and fantasy, and anyone who missed their ‘dragon period’ and needs to make up for lost time.