Robin Hobb’s Dragon Keeper is a welcome return to the world of the LIVESHIP TRADERS trilogy (fair warning: if you haven’t read that series, there may be a few spoilers here). Specifically, it is set in the Rain Wilds with the emergence of the serpents/dragons from their casings, an event enthusiastically anticipated by all who long to see these beautiful, powerful creatures soaring through the skies once more.
Often in Robin Hobb’s fiction, though, the most eagerly awaited events turn into the most disappointing ones, and such is the case here as the dragons that emerge are stunted or malformed — all physically and some mentally. Soon, the Rain Wilders realize their bargain with the queen dragon Tintaglia — they would care for the dragons and she and the new dragons would protect them from foreign threat Chalcedea — isn’t such a great deal. The humans want to rid themselves of the dragons, the dragons don’t want to feel like animals tended by humans, and so a new bargain is struck: the Rain Wilders will send human assistants to help the dragons seek out the long-lost Elderling city of Kelsingra, which lies deep in the ancestral memories of most of the dragons.
The story shifts focus among several characters. Thymara is a 16 year old, heavily marked (she has lizard-like claws, for instance) Rain Wilder girl, whose father, ignoring the usual Rain Wilder rules, refused to abandon his baby daughter to death in the forest (it’s no coincidence that most of the volunteers on the journey are such heavily-marked and shunned Rain Wilders).
Alise, meanwhile, is a Bingtown Trader who had seemed well on her way to early spinsterhood and so had taken up dragon studies as the usual “spinsterish quirky habit.” Instead, she finds herself in a marriage of convenience to Hest, an upstanding and wealthy trader husband who needs a wife so he can play his role as a socially acceptable heterosexual. Except for the homosexual part, he’s upfront with her about the convenience aspect of the marriage and bribes her with offers to pay for her studies. She willfully accepts only to find out she’s less happy than she’d expected. This trip is her way of finding a “last adventure” in her so-far lonely, loveless, and insular life.
Sintara is one of the stunted dragons — at the same time one of the most bitter and most haughty. A few semi-major characters include Leftrin, captain of the old Liveship escorting the journey upriver; Sedric, Hest’s secretary and lover whose been sent along as Alise’s chaperon as petty punishment; and Tats, a tattooed former slave who has been friends with Thymara but perhaps would like more.
As usual, Robin Hobb’s strength is characterization and set-up, though it’s possible some might call those weaknesses as well in this book, as the actual journey upriver doesn’t even start until three-quarters of the way in. Before then we get a lot of, well, characterization and set-up: Thymara’s condition, her relationships with her father (good), mother (bad), Tats (good) and the Rain Wilder community (bad), and how she ends up on this journey. Alise’s condition, her relationships with her parents (bad), Sedric (good), and Hest (bad then good then bad) and how she ends up on this journey. Sedric’s condition, his relationship with Alise (good) and Hest (good then bad), and how he ends up on this journey. Sintara’s condition (stunted, only partial ancestral memories) and her relationships with the other dragons (mostly cranky) and the humans (bad). And so on.
The most exciting conflicts that take place are mostly domestic spats between parents-children, lovers, or fellow dragons. If you’re looking for battles, jaunty con games, dark lords, tense chess-like face-offs, this is not the book for you. Nor is it the book for you if you want a fully resolved story, since just as the journey begins (well, about 100 pages afterward), the book ends.
In other words, really what the reader has in Dragon Keeper is a very, very big introduction to book two, Dragon Haven. Personally, I found the characters (including the dragons) and the various situations interesting enough in their own right that I felt no need for more “excitement.” These are fully fleshed out characters who change and grow (for the most part) in believable fashion as the book goes on. Their stories and interactions, rather than the Kelsingra quest, is what drives the reader on and does so quite handily without resort to more explosive plot events. The pace is slow but more than simply tolerable — the book and its characters unfold rather than rush by. If you know Robin Hobb, I’d say it falls between the LIVESHIP TRADERS and FARSEER books on the one hand, which were richly characterized and had the more typical plot spikes and her SOLDIER SON series on the other, which was richly characterized but glacially slow (this is much closer to the former than the latter though). Dragon Keeper also has some more overt humor in it via regularly interspersed short “conversations” between two keepers of the messenger birds who attach their own pithy commentary to official communications — a nice addition.
Similar to the SOLDIER SON series, Robin Hobb is working with some serious themes, especially the idea of the disenfranchised. We have Rain Wilders shunned by their community for their heavy disfigurations/markings, a character shunned due to his former slave status and his mother’s criminal past, a character shunned for her lack of good looks and willingness to play the feminine role, characters fearful of being shunned due to their sexuality, and of course the dragons themselves — far from the “ideal” creatures hoped for. This and the other themes are handled with Robin Hobb’s usual sophistication. Characters of a particular group, for instance, aren’t portrayed as monolithic, either in their group role (all homosexuals are like X) or in their response to their disenfranchisement.
Beyond the fact that the book has strong and mostly compelling characters, a pleasant strolling pace, and deals thoughtfully with serious topics, it’s hard to critique a story that is mostly introduction; we’ll have to wait for Dragon Haven to determine just how good the Dragon story is. But Dragon Keeper is certainly a worthy beginning and at this point well deserving of a recommendation.
CLASSIFICATION: Dragon Keeper is epic fantasy driven by comprehensive world-building and realistic characters. Recommended for fans of Kate Elliott, Jacqueline Carey, J.V. Jones, Lois McMaster Bujold, and of course, Robin Hobb.
FORMAT/INFO: Dragon Keeper is 496 pages long divided over 17 titled chapters. Also includes a Cast of Characters and numerous one-page interludes that appear between each chapter in the form of messages between bird keepers. Narration is in the third person via Sintara, Thymara, Alise, Leftrin, and Sedric. Dragon Keeper is part one of THE RAIN WILDS CHRONICLES which continues the story from the end of the LIVESHIP TRADERS trilogy, but is a stand-alone tale. Since THE RAIN WILDS CHRONICLES was written as a single book, but then split into two volumes, Dragon Keeper ends abruptly. Volume two, Dragon Haven, is scheduled for publication in the UK/US in March/May 2010.
January 26, 2010 marks the North American Hardcover publication of Dragon Keeper via EOS Books. The UK edition was published on June 25, 2009 via HarperVoyager.
ANALYSIS: Robin Hobb is one of my favorite authors, but of all her books, theLIVESHIP TRADERS is my least favorite, so I had mixed feelings about reading her newest effort, Dragon Keeper, which continues from the end of that trilogy. Once I started the book though, all of my fond memories — Liveships, Bingtown, Rain Wild Traders, wizardwood, serpents, Paragon, Captain Kennit, the mysterious Amber, etc — of that trilogy came flooding back, and it felt like returning home, even though Dragon Keeper features new characters and a standalone story. I was also reminded once again of why I love reading Robin Hobb’s novels in the first place.
For starters, I love the characters. Whether primary or secondary, Robin Hobb’s characters are three-dimensional creations with fully developed histories, thoughts, feelings, personalities, relationships, and motives, and the cast of Dragon Keeper is no exception. Sintara, Thymara, Alise, Leftrin, Sedric, Tats, Hest, Greft, Rapskal, Mercor… each and every one of the humans and dragons that appear in the book are given life, depth, and a sense of realism, which in turn makes it very easy for the reader to know and care about the characters in Dragon Keeper. On the flipside, while the main protagonists are likable, well-rounded, and possess their own distinctive narrative voices, they are not very creative and tend to suffer from overly familiar issues like predestined futures, being constrained by tradition, prejudice, sexuality, social outcasts, and finding your own path in life. The characters in Dragon Keeper also fall short of such favorites as FitzChivalry or The Fool, although they are much easier to like than Nevare from the SOLDIER SON trilogy.
Another thing I really love about Robin Hobb’s books is the extensive world-building. I was already familiar with many of the concepts present in Dragon Keeper, like Bingtown/Rain Wild societies, serpents changing into dragons, the dragons’ ancestral memories and so on, but it was a pleasure revisiting these ideas, especially because of the level of detail the author uses to illustrate the world she’s imagined.
Negatively, the plot in Dragon Keeper takes a long time to develop, and when it does, it’s disappointingly simple. Basically, nearly the whole novel deals with the new, deformed dragons who are haunted by their memories of what dragons should be, the decision to find their ancient home Kelsingra, and their journey upriver. That’s it. True, each of the five protagonists have their own reasons for journeying to Kelsingra and have various conflicts to deal with along the way, but they are mainly of a more personal nature with little surprises. There is a subplot involving the dying High Duke of Chalced who is seeking dragon parts to make a concoction to restore his health and youth, but that is still developing by the end of the book. Another complaint I had was with the little messenger bird interludes that, apart from advancing the timeline a few years about 100 pages in, served little purpose.
As far as the novel itself in relation to the other trilogies set in the Realm of the Elderlings, Dragon Keeper does stand alone and should be accessible to anyone new to Robin Hobb. That said, I believe readers already familiar with the author’s work, particularly those who have read LIVESHIP TRADERS, will enjoy Dragon Keeper more, especially with all of the little references to the previous trilogies and the familiar characters who either appear in the book or are mentioned in passing (Tintaglia, Maulkin, Selden Vestrit, Malta Vestrit, Reyn Khuprus, Paragon, Althea, Brashen Trell, Clef, Icefyre, etc).
CONCLUSION: In the end, it’s difficult to review a book that is only one-half of the story, but because of characters, prose and world-building that is vintage Robin Hobb; a story that continues to build on the epic mythos established in the author’s previous Elderlings trilogies; and the fact that it’s a new Robin Hobb novel that we’re talking about, Dragon Keeper doesn’t disappoint and comes highly recommended.
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….
I am curious of this book. I was thinking on getting it for next month for discussions over at Barnes and Nobles forums. I think I might. See what happens by then.
Yeah, sounds good. I’ll try it. I like Robin Hobb and I read Liveship Traders.