Anne McCaffrey’s Crystal Singer Trilogy– Crystal Singer, Killashandra, and Crystal Line— might be the only space opera to feature an opera singer as the main character. In an opening scene that speaks to my music major soul, music student Killashandra Ree has failed a crucial test. She will not be able to realize her dreams of becoming an operatic soprano. Devastated but still in touch with her theatrical side, she flounces off campus, determined to find a new career and be the best at it.
Fortunately for Killashandra, singing has other applications in the Federated Sentient Planets. Space operas need interplanetary communication. That’s accomplished with paired musical crystals that resonate with each other across great distances.
Crystal singers are the highly trained, highly paid professionals who mine the crystals. The only job requirements are (1) perfect pitch, since singers use voice-controlled laser cutters (2) willingness to relocate to Ballybran, the only planet where the crystals occur. Killashandra has both.
Crystal singers attain a sort of rock star-superhero-politician status. They get paid ridiculous money for cutting crystal, and living in Ballybran’s unique ecology gives them heightened senses, accelerated healing, and an extended lifespan. That’s if they don’t die in the adjustment process. Oh, and the crystal affects their memories, essentially dooming all singers to forget their loved ones as they enter old age.
All that risk seems worth it to Killashandra, who is desperate to prove herself. The first book is really about her decision to remake herself and how she finds her place as a singer. By the second and third books she’s developed enough to be concerned about problems beyond her own (she investigates human rights violations and new sentient life forms on distant planets), but her own emotional growth is always paramount to the story.
What sets Crystal Singer apart from most space opera is the lack of a larger conflict. There’s no war, no resistance, no ideological struggle. Killashandra isn’t out to make the galaxy a better place. She just wants a sense of purpose, and if she gets rich and famous in the process, that’s fine too.
She pursues her goals with single-minded, mercenary dedication. Minutes after finding out that a senior singer has perished in a crash, she’s trying to track the location of the vein of valuable crystal he was mining before he died. When her peers grow jealous of her early success, she starts sleeping with her boss. Romance is generally an afterthought for Killashandra, who approaches her attachment-free flings like an interstellar James Bond.
I discovered this trilogy as a pre-teen, and revisited it many times in the next few years. I wasn’t particularly interested in what the books had to say about sacrificing your personal life for your career or the damaging effects of untreated mental illness. I was interested in Killashandra being a badass. She goes on adventures, frequently risking her life but always rescuing herself at the last moment. At least twice a book she leaves for a trip without packing, because she can just buy new stuff when she gets there. She orders a beer like she knows what she’s talking about. So cool, you guys.
After many listens, I lost track of the cassette tapes. However, some years later, they showed up on Audible. The audio is sometimes scratchy, but still easy to understand. All three books are abridged, coming in under three hours. Usually I prefer unabridged books, but it’s never bothered me in this case. The only crystal book I’ve read on paper is Crystal Line, and I didn’t notice major omissions from the long version to the short. I think it’s nice to have an audiobook that I can finish in just a few sittings.
This is my all time favorite audiobook performance. Adrienne Barbeau brings just the right mix of melodrama, humor, and compassion to Killashandra’s story. Everyone is from non-Earth planets, so every accent works. She drawls, lilts, and purrs her way through the dialogue. Physical descriptions are kept to a minimum, usually one or two traits—red hair, wrinkles, tall and tan. I don’t know if that was the author’s stylistic choice or a victim of the abridging process. Still, the strength of Barbeau’s voice acting gave me a clear mental picture of how each character looked and moved.
This is my first focused listen-through in a few years (mostly I just pop one of these on when I want something to fall asleep to). There are things I never noticed before, like the lesbian space ship in Killashandra. It’s a ship with an all female-crew that only takes female passengers. The captain warns Killashandra not to flirt with any of the crew because most of them are already dating each other. No one wants that kind of drama when you’re stuck together in outer space.
Oh, and then there’s the way that as soon as Killashandra gets to a new planet, she starts insisting that singers need to consume a certain amount of alcohol to keep their modified metabolism working. I’ve always taken that at face value, but it doesn’t come up until the second book. Now I’m not sure it’s not Killashandra trying to trick her hosts into buying her drinks.
Anne McCaffrey did have some musical training in her youth, so what she incorporates here is all factually accurate. Still, you don’t need to understand music theory or history to appreciate the books, since most of Killashandra’s singing is applied to crystals and not performing. There is one lightly tossed off joke about Beethoven in the second book that I’ve never liked, but I’m totally behind any universe where “I made a killing in dominant thirds” is considered a smooth pick-up line.