Crystal Singer, by Anne McCaffrey (1982) E

Date read: 4.8.10
Book from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

Blast from the past! Between the ages of about ten and thirteen, I made my way through most of Anne McCaffrey’s major series*, starting with (of course) the Dragonriders of Pern books. The Crystal Singer trilogy was always my favorite guilty pleasure, though, at least in part because re-reads entailed a lot less effort than a trek back through the monumental Pern series would have. Emphasis on the guilty part of the pleasure, also, because it’s one of her more brainless series – it’s world-building detail porn, with McCaffrey’s characteristic focus on the workings of an imagined elite profession.

In the first book, we follow the conveniently meteoric rise to fortune of Killashandra Ree, a headstrong, ambitious type who ditches her home planet and 10 years of rigorous operatic training after being told that her voice isn’t suitable for solo work. After learning that the only explicit entry requirement is perfect pitch, Killa becomes bent on becoming a member of the mysterious, fabulously wealthy Heptite Guild of the planet of Ballybran, whose silicate crystals provide the galaxy with unmatcheable communications and transportation technology.

The later books take Killa off-planet for more adventures, but the first book is basically an extended training montage set almost entirely on Ballybran. Crystal cutters, Killa learns, are those who have made a full transition to a symbiotic bacterium endemic to the planet. In consequence, they gain vastly augmented lifespans and sensory abilities, but also suffer from gradual onset of dementia and paranoia caused by addiction to the intensely sensual process of “singing” the planet’s resonating crystal ranges. On top of that, Ballybran’s three moons create intense storm systems that have claimed numerous victims. Nonetheless, Killa accepts the risks, and quickly rises to become a full-fledged crystal singer.

McCaffrey is frequently considered a character-driven author. In going back, I found that at least in this series, her characters, like her humor, are pretty broadly drawn, though generally credible. I’ve always found Killa an enjoyable protagonist, since she has a nice balance of self-awareness and dramatic, ambitious tendencies.

The pleasure is really all in the details, though, from the gelatinous “radiant fluid” baths used to ease fatigue, to the Guild’s numerous supporting professions and technologies, to the unrestrainedly sensuous descriptions of Killa singing and communing with crystal. There are also some casual flings described with hilariously coy euphemisms, one slightly weird romance, and copious descriptions of alien foodstuffs. All good fun, and what McCaffrey’s writing lacks in subtlety, it makes up for in economy and ease. All in all, I was very pleasantly surprised to find that this was just as as fun as the first time I read it.

* holy crap, I can’t believe how much time I used to have for reading.

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