Way back in a review of the second book (Dragon Haven) in Robin Hobb’s RAIN WILDS series, I wrote “I’ve begun to wonder over the course of Hobb’s recent books if she is exploring just how much plot she needs in her novels to actually have a ‘story.’ It’s almost as if she’s feeling her way to as quiet and minimalist a style (in terms of action, not language) as possible.” Now, two books later, with Blood of Dragons, the tetralogy has come to a close and I’d say the question still pertains. While normally a fan of Hobb’s character-driven and slower-paced style, I have to confess that this series was a little uneven for me, and its finale a bit too slow with characters who didn’t quite hold my interest enough.
Blood of Dragons picks up where its predecessor ends, with the Elderlings and dragons just outside the rediscovered city of Kelsingera, where the two once lived ages ago amidst wonders of magic. We left this group (made up of Alise, Tats, Thymara, and others) when only a few dragons had learned to fly, and in Blood, the rest quickly pick up the knack and soon everyone has moved into the city, raising a host of issues: the humans must deal with the effects of “memory stone” (the way one can become one with the past lives of the city’s inhabitants), the dragons and their keepers have to readjust to more self-sufficient dragons, the city must be made livable for the long-term, and a search must be made for “Silver,” the mysterious substance that was the lifeblood (literally) of the city and its human/dragon inhabitants. Meanwhile, the city is quickly losing its isolation, as Alise’s vindictive husband Hest, a Chalcedean assassin seeking dragons for his Duke to feed off on, and a gravely wounded Tintaglia, Queen of Dragons, all slowly approach. And off in Chalced itself, Selden finds himself in dire straits, though perhaps with an unlikely ally.
According to Hobb, these novels grew in the writing, with stories planned for one book twice being split into two. I have to say, I’m not sure the original plan wouldn’t have been best; between a first book (Dragon Keeper) being mostly set-up and a third book (City of Dragons) suffering from being overly-long and a bit predictable, by the time we arrive here at Blood of Dragons, things are already feeling stretched out and the novel doesn’t do much to dissuade the reader of that feeling.
This sense centered as much on character relationships as on plot. The triangle of Thymara, Rapskal, and Tats has dragged on far too long for my liking, and much of the conversation and internal monologues surrounding it became overly repetitive. As this is perhaps the central relationship, or at least the one given the most page time, it drags the entire novel down. The same sense of been-there done-that is true of the push-prod relationships between the dragons and their keepers. Meanwhile, relationships that once engaged due to underlying tensions or suspense, such as those between Alise and Leftrin, or Carson and Sedrick, are by now settled and thus less interesting. When plot points arise that could act as flashpoints, such as Hest’s arrival or the growing teen rebelliousness of Carson’s nephew, they’re given short shrift, often handled in a matter of a few paragraphs.
Selden’s sojourn in Chalced feels wholly disconnected and somewhat perfunctory, and, as with many of the other plotlines, moves in mostly predictable fashion. I can’t say I was particularly surprised by any of the events in the novel; it all seemed to progress down paths one could have drawn out from the very start. Given more dynamic or interesting characters, that wouldn’t have been an insurmountable problem, but in combination with the repetitive nature of the character relationships, it means we end up with a novel that moves very slowly toward an end, or several ends, we could pretty much see coming. One of those endings, how the dragons deal with Chalced’s attempts to harvest dragonflesh, ends very abruptly and almost off-screen in the minimal way it is described. I think this is further evidence of Hobb’s greater interest in people than in plot (or at least, “action”).
One of the aspects I did really find intriguing is the characterization of the dragons themselves. Dragons in fantasy novels are often presented as fully in harmony with humans (think Pern) or as fearsome, wily beasts to be wary of as they love to trick humans or hoard their gold (think Smaug), but in nearly all cases as creatures/beings who move within a human world — acting and reacting within human strictures, human rules, human actions. But Hobb takes a real risk in giving us dragons that are in many ways wholly removed from humankind. Not literally; these dragons want their keepers after all, to groom them and find them Silver, and so on. But these dragons move by their own rules, and this often confounds the humans in Blood of Dragons, who cannot understand “why the dragon does this” or “how it could do that.”
In the end, my attention flagged at several points in the novel and I can’t say I was all that enthusiastic about picking up the novel any of the times I had put it down. There is absolutely a wonderful story in the RAIN WILDS CHRONICLES, but it is stretched out over too long a span, and Blood of Dragons suffers from that throughout. Sometimes first instincts are the right ones, and I think Hobb would have been better served to keep to her original plans in terms of length. (I’d love to see a “director’s cut” that reduced the series by a third or so.)
THE FARSEER SAGA — (1995-2013) Words Like Coins is a short e-story published in 2012. The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince is a related prequel novella published in 2013. Publisher: Young Fitz is the bastard son of the noble Prince Chivalry, raised in the shadow of the royal court by his father’s gruff stableman. He is treated like an outcast by all the royalty except the devious King Shrewd, who has him secretly tutored in the arts of the assassin. For in Fitz’s blood runs the magic Skill — and the darker knowledge of a child raised with the stable hounds and rejected by his family. As barbarous raiders ravage the coasts, Fitz is growing to manhood. Soon he will face his first dangerous, soul-shattering mission. And though some regard him as a threat to the throne, he may just be the key to the survival of the kingdom.
LIVESHIP TRADERS –(1998-2000) Bingtown is a hub of exotic trade and home to a merchant nobility famed for its liveships — rare vessels carved from wizardwood, which ripens magically into sentient awareness. The fortunes of one of Bingtown’s oldest families rest on the newly awakened liveship Vivacia. For Althea Vestrit, the ship is her rightful legacy unjustly denied her — a legacy she will risk anything to reclaim. For Althea’s young nephew Wintrow, wrenched from his religious studies and forced to serve aboard ship, Vivacia is a life sentence. But the fate of the Vestrit family — and the ship — may ultimately lie in the hands of an outsider. The ruthless pirate Kennit seeks a way to seize power over all the denizens of the Pirate Isles… and the first step of his plan requires him to capture his own liveship and bend it to his will…
TAWNY MAN — (2001-2003) For fifteen years FitzChivalry Farseer has lived in self-imposed exile, assumed to be dead by almost all who once cared about him. But that is about to change when destiny seeks him once again. Prince Dutiful, the young heir to the Farseer throne, has vanished and FitzChivalry, possessed of magical skills both royal and profane, is the only one who can retrieve him in time for his betrothal ceremony — thus sparing the Six Duchies profound political embarrassment… or worse. But even Fitz does not suspect the web of treachery that awaits him or how his loyalties to his Queen, his partner, and those who share his magic will be tested to The breaking point.
THE RAIN WILDS CHRONICLES — (2010-2012) Publisher: Guided by the great blue dragon Tintaglia, they came from the sea: a Tangle of serpents fighting their way up the Rain Wilds River, the first to make the perilous journey to the cocooning grounds in generations. Many have died along the way. With its acid waters and impenetrable forest, it is a hard place for any to survive. People are changed by the Rain Wilds, subtly or otherwise. One such is Thymara. Born with black claws and other aberrations, she should have been exposed at birth. But her father saved her and her mother has never forgiven him. Like everyone else, Thymara is fascinated by the return of dragons: it is as if they symbolise the return of hope to their war-torn world. Leftrin, captain of the liveship Tarman, also has an interest in the hatching; as does Bingtown newlywed, Alise Finbok, who has made it her life’s work to study all there is to know of dragons. But the creatures which emerge from the cocoons are a travesty of the powerful, shining dragons of old. Stunted and deformed, they cannot fly; some seem witless and bestial. Soon, they become a danger and a burden to the Rain Wilders: something must be done. The dragons claim an ancestral memory of a fabled Elderling city far upriver: perhaps there the dragons will find their true home. But Kelsingra appears on no maps and they cannot get there on their own: a band of dragon keepers, hunters and chroniclers must attend them. To be a dragon keeper is a dangerous job: their charges are vicious and unpredictable, and there are many unknown perils on the journey to a city which may not even exist…
FITZ AND THE FOOL — (2014- ) Publisher: FitzChivalry — royal bastard and former king’s assassin — has left his life of intrigue behind. As far as the rest of the world knows, FitzChivalry Farseer is dead and buried. Masquerading as Tom Badgerlock, Fitz is now married to his childhood sweetheart, Molly, and leading the quiet life of a country squire. Though Fitz is haunted by the disappearance of the Fool, who did so much to shape Fitz into the man he has become, such private hurts are put aside in the business of daily life, at least until the appearance of menacing, pale-skinned strangers casts a sinister shadow over Fitz’s past… and his future. Now, to protect his new life, the former assassin must once again take up his old one….