Wednesday, 8 July 2015

The Blog Fantastic 038: Dragondrums Review (Unread 014)

Dragondrums is the third volume of the Harper Hall trilogy. It’s noticeably different than the first two volumes because this volume focuses on Piemur, rather than Menolly. I read some reviews and comments online about how some people really didn’t like that change. It was said that it undermined Menolly’s character and that Piemur isn’t worthy enough to lead his own book. I personally like the change. Menolly rubbed me the wrong way because she was infallible and could do no wrong. She reeks of Mary Sue’ness and that got tiresome pretty quickly. She’s still a part of Dragondrums but it’s less focused that in the previous volumes. I did have my moments where I really liked her but overall, I liked her better in this book. She works better for me when she’s not in the spotlight. For me, she’s a character that works best when I’m not spending all my time inside her head. I can appreciate her talents and personality much more this way. I also happen to like Piemur, so having more of him in Dragondrums was a positive change, in my opinion. However, like Menolly, he did have his moments where he annoyed me.

This book is about growing up and dealing with changes that our out of control (kind of funny then that readers were upset about the change in main character – you can’t do anything about it so settle in and enjoy the story). Piemur, at the age of 14, loses his soprano voice leaving him unable to sing until his voice settles down and he finds his new vocal range. He’s at a loss as to what his future hold. He doesn’t know what to do. He’s never excelled at anything else at Harper Hall besides singing. He’d even become Master Shonagar’s favourite student because of his voice. Aside from that, he’s not really any good in other fields of music. He sucks at making instruments, his gitar playing is no more than average, he isn’t good at composition, or at copying sheet music. Crushed by the thoughts that he would have to return to his childhood Hold, he is given incredible news.

He’s been reassigned to apprentice with Master Robinton, the Masterharper of Pern and working with Menolly and Sebell (the Masterharper’s journeyman). Piemur is to be a spy for the Harper Hall. In order to make sure his new role stays a secret which will allow him to take part in covert information gathering operations, he’s officially reassigned to Master Olodkey, the Drummaster, and working in the drum heights. In actuality, he’s to do both jobs, often having to practice his drum measures while travelling from one place to the next on Pern.

It’s at this point in the book where Piemur and Dragondrums suffer in the same way that Menolly and the two previous volumes of the trilogy suffered. Only good things happen to him (when bad things a happen they’re often blessings in disguise) and he excels at everything. He’s very skilled with the drums, quickly and skilfully learning all of the drum measures he is assigned. Similar to Menolly, he even gets bullied for being too good. This was a frustrating turn for the story to take. It made it difficult for me to continue liking Piemur because his attitude toward his mistreatment at the hands of the other drum apprentices was different than how he was portrayed in the earlier books. I’m not saying that bullying doesn’t happen nor that it doesn’t happen for the reasons displayed in this book, but Piemur’s attitude towards it and the similarities it had with Menolly’s story made the story feel repetitive. My thoughts while reading were that McCaffrey replaced her Mary Sue (Menolly) from Dragonsong and Dragonsinger with a Gary Stu (Piemur). He does no wrong for the entire book . . . until, suddenly, he screws up remarkably and the second half of the book becomes very satisfying and manages to improve the first half by adding some much deserved balance to Piemur’s character.

The second half of the book is where Piemur really grows up. He has to come to terms with the fact that he screwed up in his mission at Nabol Hold, but he can’t dwell on it too much because he’s lost in the Southern Continent. Not only does he need to feed himself and find shelter from threadfall, he also has to take care of his fire lizard egg. The chapters dealing with his survival are excellent. I also enjoyed the work that Robinton, Menolly, and Sebell had to do in the Northern Continent to fix the problems Piemur caused. Even the book’s ending is good, if a tiny bit abrupt. The resolution of the plot feels like a natural progression from what came earlier in the novel. Likewise, the establishment of the new status quo that flows nicely into the continuation of Piemur’s story as seen in The White Dragon.

A Note on the Reading Order:
When asked in which order to read the Dragonriders of Pern series, Anne McCaffrey was said to recommend reading them in publication order. I tend to agree with her on this and I happen to think it’s often true of most series. Specifically for Pern, reading the book in chronological order ruins significant portions of Dragonflight, Dragonquest, and other books in the main Pern timeline of the Ninth Pass. However, having read The White Dragon and Dragondrums in publication order, I would argue that reading Dragondrums first makes for a better reading experience. Essentially, follow the publication order but swap the last two books:

Dragonflight (1968)
Dragonquest (1970)
Dragonsong (1976)
Dragonsinger (1977)
Dragondrums (1979)
The White Dragon (1978)

To start off, it makes sense to break the flow of the main Dragonriders of Pern trilogy between Dragonquest and The White Dragon by reading the first two books in the Harper Hall trilogy. Menolly isn’t a character in Dragonquest (at least, she’s not mentioned but she is present at a few events in Benden Weyr, such as Ruth’s impression with Jaxom) and so it makes sense to read Dragonsong and Dragonsinger before reading The White Dragon because it gives you the chance to get to know her as a character before she makes her appearance in the Dragonriders of Pern trilogy. While the publication order and the chronological order are essentially the same with the first four books, things take a wrong turn with the following two books.

If following the strict publication order, like I have been, you’ll end up reading Dragondrums after The White Dragon. That works just fine except for Piemur who certainly gets shorthanded when it comes to his part of the story. Publication order doesn’t work because Piemur is in a completely different place (as well as a different character) in The White Dragon than he is in Dragonsinger. He changes a lot during the events of Dragondrums. Because of that, I would read Dragondrums before The White Dragon. There are also spoilers in The White Dragon that could ruin your enjoyment of Dragondrums. To top it off, there happens to be a nice progression in the story when reading the entire Harper Hall trilogy uninterrupted, even with the change in main character from Menolly to Piemur. You can read them directly after reading Dragonquest and you don’t get the sense that you’re missing anything in the larger story of Pern during the Ninth Pass. That’s not true when circling back to The White Dragon before finishing the Harper Hall trilogy with Dragondrums.

The most important thing, regardless of which reader order you choose to read these books, is that you don’t skip Dragondrums. It was my favourite of all the Harper Hall trilogy books. I like Piemur as a character (even though he was annoying for part of the book), I enjoyed his personal growth throughout the novel. I also liked the missions he did for the Masterharper. Aside from some Gary Stu moments, this book was fun. It was quick in ways that some of the main Pern trilogy books can’t be (there is a lot of talking and explaining and discussing and multiple plot lines) but it also put me square into the middle of Pern. I felt like I was living on that far away planet for the couple of days I was reading. It gave me that sense of wonder I want from science fiction and fantasy while also giving me large scale stakes (the events of Nabol Hold) and personal stakes (Piemur’s story). It had moments of triumph and moments of defeat. It’s slim book, but there is no fat here. It’s meaty, very enjoyable, and I wish Piemur, Menolly, Robinton, and Sebell continue to play an important part in the following Pern novels. (Actually, it will be several books before we return to the main storyline in All the Weyrs of Pern since I’ll continue to read the series in publication order).

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