The Golden Age of Science Fiction: Dragondrums, by Anne McCaffrey
The Balrog Award, often referred to as the coveted Balrog Award, was created by Jonathan Bacon and first conceived in issue 10/11 of his Fantasy Crossroads fanzine in 1977 and actually announced in the final issue, where he also proposed the Smitty Awards for fantasy poetry. The awards were presented for the first time at Fool-Con II at the Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kansas on April 1, 1979. The awards were never taken particularly seriously, even by those who won. The final awards were presented in 1985. A Balrog Award for Novel was presented each of the years the award existed.
Anne McCaffrey first introduced her world of Pern in “Weyr Search,” the cover story of the October 1967 issue of Analog. Although the story had all the trappings of a faux Medieval fantasy tale, McCaffrey claimed from the very beginning that it was a science fiction story, a claim bolstered by its presence in Analog, a science fiction magazine. The story went on to win the Hugo Award and McCaffrey used it in her first Pern novel. By 1978, she had published three novels in the Dragonriders of Pern series and the first two novels in the related Harper Hall series, Dragonsong and Dragonsinger. She had also clearly demonstrated the science fictional underpinnings of her world.
Dragondrums, which won the Balrog Award for Best Novel in 1980, demonstrates a potential problem with award-winning novels. The sixth book in her world, McCaffrey rightfully expects that anyone reading the novel will have read, at the very least, the two previous Harper Hall books and mostly likely the Pern trilogy. She chose to avoid redundancy in writing Dragondrums, assuming that the readers would know the basics of the world, which means that the book is not a good introduction to her world for readers. However, appearing on a list of Balrog winners could, in theory, mean that the book is the entry point for some readers who were trying to catch up on award winners (granted, a more likely supposition if it had won the Hugo or Nebula Award). Someone who is first discovering Pern through Dragondrums will find themselves confused about what is happening, what the relationships are, and how the world works.
Without explanations of how her world works or the political situation set up in the Dragonriders trilogy, the reader can still enjoy Piemur’s adventures as he starts out as a singer in the Harper Hall and must find a new path after his voice changes. However, while the reader of just this volume is aware that the Oldtimers are causing problems and Lord Meron at Nabol Hold is not held in particularly high esteem by the Harpers, the reason for those things is not really explored, relying, as it does, on McCaffrey’s previous writings.
Similarly, Piemur’s desire to connect with a fire lizard is a driving force for him, but the novelty of the fire lizards is ever really discussed in the book. For a full understanding of the creatures, the earlier books in the series are required, and a lot more information would be provided in future novels.
I haven’t read the trilogy in years, and my recollections was a focus on Menolly, but she is very much a support character in Dragondrums with the novel really focusing on Piemur’s story. The Harper Hall series was written as a juvenile companion series to the original novels and over the course of the first two books, Menolly had apparently aged out of the main character role. Piemur was definitely an adolescent in this novel, although one rapidly on his way towards adulthood and responsibility, giving McCaffrey a new character her readers could relate to, even if he exhibited amazing abilities and strokes of luck. It would seem that the introduction of a new viewpoint character would be an invitation to new readers, but already by the time this book was written, McCaffrey’s world was complex enough that the previous works are required for a fully understanding of Piemur’s adventures.
Dragondrums beat out Stephen King’s The Dead Zone and The Stand, Death’s Master, by Tanith Lee, The Drawing of the Dark, by Tim Powers, C.J. Cherryh’s Fires of Azeroth, Harpist in the Wind, by Patricia A. McKillip, The Road to Corlay, by Richard Cowper, The Starfollowers of Coramonde, by Brian Daley, and Robert Bloch’s Strange Eons.
Steven H Silver is a sixteen-time Hugo Award nominee and was the publisher of the Hugo-nominated fanzine Argentus as well as the editor and publisher of ISFiC Press for 8 years. He has also edited books for DAW and NESFA Press. He began publishing short fiction in 2008 and his most recently published story is “Webinar: Web Sites” in The Tangled Web. Steven has chaired the first Midwest Construction, Windycon three times, and the SFWA Nebula Conference 6 times, as well as serving as the Event Coordinator for SFWA. He was programming chair for Chicon 2000 and Vice Chair of Chicon 7.
The Dragonriders of Pern series was one of my favorite series growing up. So much so that I used to roleplay them on Yahoo and MSN groups back in the day!
However, it’s always had a somewhat confusing chronology in terms of reading order. There is the “Harper Hall” trilogy which starts with 2 books focused on Menolly (pronounced oddly to my mind as MEN-oh-lee!) and then shifts to Piemur in the last one.
There was also the Dragon Riders of Pern Omnibus which is actually the first book I read of the Pern stories which has Dragonflight, Dragonquest and The White Dragon collected. The White Dragon was actually written after the Harper Hall trilogy so if you read these books, all of a sudden Piemur and Menolly are characters and you have no idea where they came from!
All this on top of a weird tendency in the earlier days of the internet to list the entire series in internal chronological order instead of publishing order (I love the series very much to this day but to my mind it very much grows as McCaffrey wrote and figures out the world as she goes)
A fine series, both the Pern books overall and the Harper Hall trilogy. I agree completely with your assessment of this book, it really needs to be read after the other two, even if it does launch Piemer onto his own.
McCaffrey herself suggested a reading order that jumped around a little, with the Harper Hall books after the first 2 Pern books, then White Dragon, then Dragondrums.
I absolutely say skip the books by Todd Mccaffrey
I worked in a bookstore, I never sold any of the Harper Hall books to anyone who wasn’t already into Pern.