When I wrote earlier this summer about one of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books, the reaction was swift and enthusiastic. Many sci-fi and fantasy readers cut their teeth on Pern and its dragons. However, aside from her short story collection Get Off the Unicorn, I hadn’t read anything by McCaffrey that wasn’t set on Pern. And as any Amazon visitor knows, once you’ve browsed or bought a title, you will be bombarded by that author’s backlist for all time. This is how I discovered Crystal Singer, published in 1982, and the first in a series by the same name about Killashandra Ree and the world of Ballybran.
Her name was Killashandra Ree. And after ten grueling years of musical training, she was still without prospects. Until she heard of the mysterious Heptite Guild who could provide careers, security, and wealth beyond imagining. The problem was, few people who landed on Ballybran ever left. But to Killashandra the risks were acceptable...
Killashandra Ree has spent ten years of her life studying to become a vocal soloist, and she has her heart set on fame and lasting renown. When she is told after her final exam that she doesn’t have the talent to realize her dream, she is absolutely furious. Amid anger, disappointment and shock, she is forced to consider, for the first time ever, what she might do other than perform. It is then that a coincidental meeting introduces her to a member of the secretive Heptite Guild, and the possibility of a future on a planet both puzzling and perilous.
McCaffrey is known for her world building prowess, and she does not let the reader down with Crystal Singer. The Heptite Guild, Ballybran, and Killashandra’s home world are portrayed in such careful detail that they become characters in their own right. Ballybran itself is a marvelous, mysterious and dangerous world, and I believe I could read a book on its history, geography and geology very happily – and I mean that. It’s amazing what McCaffrey is able to do with description, as well as somewhat terrifying.
In Killashandra Ree, McCaffrey has created a character who views herself as set apart from others. Killashandra is headstrong and stubborn, extremely talented and intelligent, and yet unhappy with the direction her life has taken. Her innate determination to be the very best is what leads her to life as a crystal singer, and that stubbornness and bullheadedness carry her on toward her goals. Killashandra isn’t immediately likeable, but she is such a hard worker, and so curious and passionate about every aspect of life, that you begin to see charm amidst the struggle.
The coming-of-age aspect of the story, combined with the peculiar planet and the unraveling of its mysteries, places Crystal Singer firmly in the camp of YA/adult crossover sci-fi. While I enjoyed the book and felt a strong compulsion to see it to the finish, it was not a runaway favorite. However, the strange life of crystal singers, and especially Killashandra Ree, will haunt me for a long time.