The Master Harper of Pern, Anne McCaffrey

80531-masterharper.coverThe Master Harper of Pern, Anne McCaffrey (1998)
Review by Adam Roberts

A series that multiplied with tribble-like pertinacity, McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern (1968-present) is a planetary romance in which certain special individuals (like you, trufan! and me!) have a telepathic bond with a breed of marvellous magical gigantic purring cats, sorry, fire-breathing dragons. Together, trufan and dracono-moggy defend the world of Pern against nasty ‘threads’ which periodically (the period being 50 years) rain down out of the sky from a nearby ‘red star’, threatening to devour all Pernian life. The initial idea, according to McCaffrey’s son, was for a ‘technologically regressed survival planet’ whose inhabitants are united against a external threat in a way that wasn’t true of America during the Vietnam War. ‘The dragons became the biologically renewable air force, and their riders “the few” who, like the RAF pilots in World War Two, fought against incredible odds day in, day out—and won.’

As you can see from the cover, up there, this instalment in the series is ‘The Story of Pern’s Greatest Harpo’, Robinton by name. Like all great Harpos, Robinton plays the harp. He also plays the flute, the ‘gitar’ (an instrument exactly like a ‘guitar’ although, obviously, without the ‘u’) and lots of other instruments too. He is, the novel tells us over and over again, a musical genius. He is, in point of fact, Amadeus:

He began to make a copy of the sonata … he looked back over the score, to be sure he had annotated it properly. He paced back and forth, paused to pour himself a glass of wine, and then went back to the table and proceeded to copy out his Kasia songs. He finished those, drinking as he worked, and rolled up the music with a neat ribbon tying the packet. He had a final glass of wine, realizing dawn was not far away. (p 260)

You may be thinking: this doesn’t sound much like the Tolkien-plus-a-few-ancient-technological-artefacts worldbuilding idiom familiar from other Pern novels. And you would be right so to think. Robinton is sometimes presented as in effect a scop, scald or rhapsode, going from castle to castle, hall to hall, literally singing for his supper. But when it suits the novel’s fancy he is a eighteenth-century genius composer, writing staves fluently upon an endless supply of animal hides, composing melodies that make people weep instantly. We have to take this latter much-repeated fact on trust, since no actual music is included. I assume Robinton composes in D-minor which is, as is well known, the saddest of all keys. His musical ability also gives him a special bond with the giant telepathic feline dragons, because everything that happens in these novels must relate to the dragons, because, you know. Duh. What else are the novels for?

The Masterharper of Pern tells Robinton’s life story from his birth; his distant, disapproving father; his music training; his falling in love with beautiful green-eyed Kasia; their marriage; a disastrous boat trip after which Kasia catches a chill of which she subsequently dies. Robinton is made sad by this, although he’s soon engaging in no-strings-attached shagging with slinky Silvana. Then, in an odd move, he has a brain-damaged son with Silvana. Then things heat up, fight-wise, as we near the end. Most of the fixtures and fittings are castles, potions, bejewelled daggers, swords, bows, arrows and the like; although McCaffrey also says things like “the main Hall had excellent acoustics” (p 353), which isn’t the sort of line you tend to find in Chaucer; and her characters wear “heavy woollen socks” (p 276), items of clothing which aren’t anachronistic yet somehow sound as if they should be. Plus her people are forever drinking cups of tea coffee, here called “klah”. Sometimes on its own. Sometimes with Canderel (“”You are related to MasterSinger Merelan?” Silvina asked as she poured klah and passed around the sweetener”, p 335)

The novel itself is 400-pages of meh, lifted a little from time to time by a few less-feeble-than-the-rest set-pieces (Robinton and Kasia in the boat on the storm isn’t bad; and some of the fighting near the end is readable). Mostly the problem is one of style. From time to time, McCaffrey remembers that she’s writing a cod-medieval dragon-packed planetary adventure and wrenches her style into inelegances of the “many of the capping slabs were athwart the expanse” (p 294) or “he asked for conveyance a-dragonback” (p 336) kind. But the bulk of the novel is written in a could-not-be-blander grey contemporary prose, stitched together almost entirely out of cliché. Cliché is everything in this novel: the characters, the settings, the events, nothing is here to make you see things freshly or to startle you out of your comfortable familiarity. Hardly a page goes by when the author does not fall back, consciously or otherwise, on an inert, clogging, conventionalised phrase. This character finds himself “between a rock and a hard place” (p 51); that other has “a vice-like grip” (p 91). If there is a silence it must be “a stunned silence” (p 109), or indeed “an awful, stunned silence” (p 345). Characters “rue the day” (p 172), “stifle a laugh” (p 195), promise to “show him the error of his ways” (p 222). Men have “rugged good looks” (p 231) and everybody “cocks their head” at things. Actually, people in this novel are forever cocking their heads (“he cocked his head at Robinton, a sly grin on his rugged, weathered face”, p 236; “cocking her head”, p 256; “Nip cocked his head”, p 357; “Tick cocked his head hopefully”, p 375). Rather than leave, people “steal away” (p 272); storms have exactly the properties you would expect them to have (“in the teeth of the gale … driving rain” p 273); coughs are ‘hacking coughs’ [304] and people “refuse to dignify that question with an answer” (p 287). Martin Amis once declared that the primary business of a writer was to wage war on cliché. Stylistically speaking, McCaffrey evidently preferred, as far as that went, to give peace a chance. A slack, underwhelming novel.


2 thoughts on “The Master Harper of Pern, Anne McCaffrey

  1. New design? It is a big improvement, bravo.

    And yeah, I tried to read the first Pern book, Dragonflight, in 2010, and I was surprised at how lame it was. McCaffery has her fans, though: my hostile Amazon review entitled “Spoiled brats demand tithes” has received only 7 “helpful” votes out of 29 total votes. Ouch!

  2. I am a fan of McCaffrey’s but I wouldn’t defend the writing on this book (one I lost and never felt the need to replace). I also wouldn’t defend Dragonflight, to be fair. To me, McCaffrey is comfort reading that doesn’t have to be the best-written in the world; it’s a fun play-world to project your Mary-Sue into.

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