Friday, 21 January 2011

Anne McCaffrey reading challenge – The Crystal Singer

I grew up reading Anne McCaffrey’s stories and often dig out my favourite battered copies of her books whenever I need a bit of comfort reading, so I was delighted to discover this 2011 reading challenge set by Caroline at Portrait of a Woman .

In case you’ve not come across her work yet (Muse: She’s a big hit over in the enchanted mists!), Anne McCaffrey mixes fantasy and science fiction in a warm and personal way that makes you really care for her characters. Although her books often include spaceships and alien planets, you won’t find any geeky stories with gadgets and zappers here – her characters are real people with real emotions, who just happen to live on alien planets and use spaceships the way we might drive cars. The good news is she’s been writing for a long time, which means she has a huge backlist for you to discover.

When I was a teenager, I almost sent her a fan latter but chickened out of posting it at the last minute because I couldn’t work out what kind of stamp would reach her in Ireland (Muse: this was before the days of email, obviously). Her books range from the popular Dragonriders of Pern series, to thoughtful science fiction such as “The Ship Who Sang”. Music plays a strong part in many of her books, and I suspect my first novel “Song Quest” owes quite a bit to Anne McCaffrey’s influence from those early days. (Muse: Any author who says they are not influenced by what they read is lying!)

In fact, Anne McCaffrey has written so many books – the later ones in collaboration with other writers – that even a dedicated fan like me has not read them all. I’m looking forward to some new discoveries myself this year, but for my first review of this challenge I’m going to tell you about my all-time favourite Anne McCaffrey book.

THE CRYSTAL SINGER

Welcome to the beautiful world of Ballybran, where members of the elite Heptite Guild mine precious crystal by literally singing it out of the rocks. Since Ballybran crystals are in demand for both communications and space travel, these “crystal singers” have high status throughout the universe. Their special talent, coupled with the small number of people who make it as a singer, makes them rich beyond their wildest dreams. But the planet of Ballybran hides a deadly secret that ties the singers to their place of work… an alien crystal spore which invades any carbon-based life form landing on the planet, either forming a symbiotic relationship that enhances human senses, or killing it in the process. Too long away from its home planet, and the spore dies, killing its host. Not everyone makes the successful adaptation required to sing crystal, and those who fail must remain on Ballybran as technicians and support staff for the rest of their lives. The secrecy surrounding Ballybran, along with its fearsome mach storms capable of stripping skin from bones, mean that applying to the Heptite Guild is discouraged by many planet authorities.

Enter beautiful and ambitious Killashandra Ree, who has grown up on the backwater world of Fuerte, where she attends music college hoping to make it as a solo singer. When her tutor tells her – right at the start of the book – that her voice contains a flaw which will prevent her from being the big star she dreams of, she puts her past behind her, and leaves the planet of her birth to apply for membership of the Heptite Guild, little knowing what dangers lie ahead. Killashandra is lucky enough to have a Milekey transition, perfectly adapting her to life on Ballybran, and when she finds a rare and valuable black crystal seam the enigmatic Guildmaster himself takes a personal interest in her that is not solely professional.

From the first few lines of this book, Killashandra’s thwarted ambition and her determination to be the best makes you want her to succeed. The way the spore invades people’s bodies is both frightening and believable, and the beautiful planet of Ballybran is so well described that I could almost hear the crystal ranges singing back to me. For me this book has it all: memorable characters, a strong heroine, believable scientific background, a great “what if” (what happens when a silicon-based life form meets a carbon-based life form?), and that elusive sense of wonder that makes science fiction and fantasy so enjoyable. With the scientific detail and space politics, it’s probably not aimed at younger readers, but I enjoyed it as a teenager and I love it equally now. If you want proof of how well this book lingers in the mind after reading, I wrote this review from memory without referring to the text. (Muse: so if you spot any mistakes, that’s why!)

Thank you to Caroline for suggesting this reading challenge. And if you haven’t read any Anne McCaffrey books yet, they are out there waiting for you… go find the author who was responsible for making me want to write!

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