The protagonist, Killashandra Ree, reminds me a bit of Rachel from Glee. She’s very ambitious and driven, and it took me half the book to figure out that I actually liked her as a character. It’s been said that qualities that are seen in a man as ambitious are seen in a woman as bitchy, and I think that is true in Killashandra’s case for much of the book.
The novel starts when Killashandra finds out that she’s never going to be the concert soloist that she’s spent her whole life trying to be due to a minor flaw in her voice. She gets angry and runs away from the school, having a brief affair with a man named Carrick. Carrick is a member of the Heptite Guild on the planet of Ballybran, and although he gets removed from the story almost immediately, Killashandra realizes that joining the Heptite Guild would be able to give her the same type of glory and prestige that she’d be able to have as a concert singer. The Heptite Guild are responsible for mining crystal that is used in communications. In order to mine the crystal, a Crystal Singer must have perfect pitch and be able to tune the cutter with the crystal’s resonance. Oh, and one other minor detail… in order to live on Ballybran, your body has to form a successful symbiosis with a spore native to the planet. Once it does, you can never be away from the planet for more than about a year at a time, or else you collapse into convulsions and die. If the spore doesn’t take properly, it can result in disability or death. If it does take, it alters your perception so you’re basically on a permanent acid trip. Oh, and crystal is addictive. Like, if you have adapted to the spore and are by crystal, you can just stare at it all day and be like “Oooh, pretty!” It’s apparently highly addictive and causes Crystal Singers to eventually lose their minds. Killashandra defies the odds and excels on Ballybran, and eventually falls in love with the Guild Master (and nerd that I am, I found this funny).
One thing that I thought was really cool was the way that McCaffrey handled computers. This was written in the early 80s, but she didn’t use so much computer detail to make the book less relevant now that we actually have computers. Instead, she made their use primarily for data, and just said that the most important part of using a computer is knowing which questions to ask it.
Another thing that I found interesting was the view of the economy. Killashandra’s home planet seems to be run in a quasi-socialist manner–the government does handle all monetary transactions/paying people, students get stipends and living accommodations for free (I am jealous), and people still get a measure of choice in their career paths. On Ballybran, things are run a bit differently. Since the planet is so secretive, the Guild is run a bit more like an 0ld-school coal mining company. Members have to pay for their equipment, training, etc., but then pay off their debt with their wages. However, as the Guild holds everything together, it doesn’t take advantage of the members, and you can get quite rich if you bring in the rarer types of crystal. Even if you’re in one of the lower positions in the Guild, everything is provided for you.
All in all, a rather interesting read, and a good start with sci-fi for me.