Title: The Dragon Keeper
Author: Robin Hobb
Series/Standalone: Series – The Rain Wild Chronicles (same world as the Farseer, Liveship, and Tawny Man trilogies)
First Published: 2009
Edition Reviewed: 2010
Price: £8.99 (RRP), used prices on Amazon Market Place start from 98p at time of posting
Plot: The story follows a number of characters as they deal with the personal and wider implications of the return of dragons to the already rich and politically complex world of the Rain Wilds and the down-river trading hub of Bingtown.
Dragons have a complex life-cycle which was almost irrevocably disrupted by an ancient volcanic eruption. The accompanying earthquakes changed the shape of the landscape and the flow of the river, making it impossible for the sea serpents that form the larval stage of the dragon lifecycle to reach their cocooning and hatching grounds. Dragons had become virtually extinct. The cities of the elderlings who had tended and served the dragons were abandoned and lost in landslides. A few precious dragon cocoons had been hidden in the cities, and were unearthed, hundreds of years later by the Rain Wild Traders as they looted the deserted elderling cities. They took the cocoons of the dragons for ‘logs’ of the strange and magical wizard wood, which they used to build their Liveships, discarding any withered dragon hatchlings they found in the process.
But one dragon survived the centuries, and was saved by the young Bingtown trader girl, Marta. On hatching she was desolate to find herself alone in the world, and set out to locate and save any remaining sea serpents, with the aim of reviving her race. But the serpents had been too long in their larval stage. They made their yearly migrations without knowing why, only a few retaining any memory of being dragons, and unable to navigate the Rain Wild River to their cocooning grounds. In exchange for protecting their cities, the traders made a deal with the dragon, Tintaglia, to help make a way for the serpents up the river.
Now the dragons are due to emerge from their cocoons. This novel concerns how the people of the Rain Wilds and Bingtown will deal with their new responsibility, their guilt, and their greed. Although told from a variety of different viewpoints, the two central storylines follow Thymara (presumably the ‘Dragon Keeper’ of the title) and Alise.
Thymara is a reject of the Rain Wilds. Rain Wilders live in an environment of swamp, magic, and acid. They build their cities amongst the trees, as the water from the Rain Wild River is so corrosive at certain times of the year that it will eat through practically anything except wizard wood (and, one presumes, the trees in which they build their cities). The environment has also warped its inhabitants, causing odd growths, mutation, and a low life expectancy. The most mutated children are quietly exposed at birth, in the knowledge that their ‘defects’ will only increase as they grow older, that their lives will almost certainly be short anyway, and that they would be forbidden to breed if they reached adulthood. Thymara should have been exposed at birth, but her father spared her. With her clawed hands and scaled skin, you might think she was well-adapted to her acidic, tree-living lifestyle, but most Rain Wilders don’t see it that way.
The dragons that hatch from the cocoons are as malformed as Thymara. They were too old, they cocooned at the wrong time of year, they did not have the help of dragons and elderlings as they would have in years gone by. Many of them die soon after hatching. The ones that live are weak, small, and unable to fly. If they can’t fly, they can’t mate. They seem doomed. Seeing the state they are in, and hearing of a possible mate unearthed under the ice in the frozen north, Tintaglia abandons the new dragons, leaving them as a burden on the Rain Wild Traders.
But the dragons have a memory of another elderling city, where they believe things will be better. They long to go there, and the Rain Wilders are only too happy to encourage them to leave, but the dragons cannot fend for themselves. Killing two birds with one stone, they encourage the most malformed of their youths to become dragon keepers, and to lead an expedition to the elderling city. They seem unlikely to make it, but if they do, the Rain Wilds will have a new source of riches. Thymara knows the risks, but seeks escape from the censure of her life in the city. She signs up.
Alise, on the other hand, is a rich but plain daughter of a Bingtown Trader. All she has ever wanted to do is study dragons. She marries the handsome Hest Finbrook when he makes an unlikely proposal. She accepts it as a business arrangement, pleased that he has agreed to support her studying and allow her to travel to the Rain Wilds one day to study the dragons in person. She secretly harbours the hope that he might love her after all, but this hope is swiftly dashed. He views sleeping with her as a chore he can only face when drunk, and he is often violent. She believes he is having an affair, but never suspects that it is with her oldest and dearest friend, his secretary, Sedric.
Although marriage to Hest destroys what little confidence she has, she becomes determined to enforce the agreement (written into the marriage contract) that she should be allowed one trip to the Rain Wilds to see the dragons. Although she doesn’t know it, she is in a race against time to get there before the dragons leave.
So, is it good?
I must confess a bias: Robin Hobb is my favourite author. The Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies contain some of my favourite books of all time, and her science fiction novel (written under the name of Megan Lindholm), Alien Earth may be my favourite sci-fi novel ever. That said, she’s patchy. I wouldn’t recommend the The Ki and Vandien Quartet to anyone but a die-hard fan, and the Liveship books are not as compelling as the Farseer books they are a sequel to. But she writes the sort of books I like, and she knows how to craft angst like no one else on this planet. I’m not talking about painful clunky Twilight angst, I’m talking about the good shit. Like ‘How much pain can I put one character through and still have a compelling story arc?’ shit.
However. After reading the Soldier Son trilogy, I really felt she might have gone too far. If you want to feel harrowed and angry, that is a trilogy for you. But I’m afraid that it tested even my angst loving heart. For this reason (as well as poverty), The Dragon Keeper was the first Robin Hobb book for a long time that I did not rush out to buy in hardback first edition.
Fortunately, when I finally did crack open a paperback copy, I was relieved to find it a bit more palatable than I had feared. This is not her greatest work, but then, she’s a master of the craft with a formidable record. What’s mediocre for Robin Hobb is still pretty good. These books read well and easily, and the rich culture of the Rain Wilds continues to be fascinating. My only worry is that she is now so deep into this world, a new reader might struggle to pick up the back story – you can see above that I had to spend a fair few words providing context. Unfortunately, I’m so deep into this world, too, that I can’t say with any authority how it would seem to a new reader. Hobb does provide a lot of the background, but it is so rich I don’t know how easy it would be to follow.
Long time fans should not expect to see Fitz or the Fool in this book (although if you’ve read The Golden Fool and kept up with the chronology, you should know that; and if you haven’t read that book yet – what are you doing? That book is phenomenal – get to it, now!), but you will encounter a few of our old friends from the Rain Wilds. The story is mainly about Thymara and Alise, though.
I like these characters. They are engaging and sympathetic, although not above the sort of realistic pettiness that makes Robin Hobb characters so well-rounded. Both characters have had it tough, and I suspect it will only get tougher as the trilogy goes on, but it’s not so unrelenting as to be unbearable. I love Alise as a character, and, although she is not the title character, she really shines through as the ‘senior’ main protagonist, for me. She’s reminiscent of those wonderful old lady explorers, only without quite the formidable battle-axe temperament (yet). It’s wonderful to watch her grow throughout the novel, and I hope that she continues to do so. I hope that she becomes one of those old battle-axes and returns to Bingtown to shake things up (or decides that she doesn’t need to go back at all!).
The sub-plot of Sedric’s tempestuous and clandestine romance with Alise’s husband, Hest, is also interesting. I don’t like Hest. At all. Sedric, although more sympathetic, is also petty, vain, soft, and selfish. His treatment of Alise is quite appalling, when one steps back and thinks about it, not least because he simply doesn’t think about what he is doing to her by having a relationship with Hest, most of the time. It’s interesting to see characterisation like this for gay characters from an author with a history of presenting very sympathetic homosexual (and possibly even transgendered) characters in both fantasy and science-fiction settings. Against the background of the very sympathetic presentation of the Fool, it’s hard to criticise her for creating unlikable gay characters here. Rather, it seems to me that Hobb has taken things to the next stage. She has always been a good author for feminism and queer theory, and I think this shows that she is still at the cutting edge of discussion. I see in this book an exploration of the current debates about privilege. All of the characters in this book are privileged in some ways and disadvantaged in others. Alise is a member of the wealthy, educated aristocracy where Thymara is amongst the poorest, yet Thymara has a level of personal freedom Alise could not even imagine. Hest and Sedric are wealthy men in the prime of their lives, yet despite their unthinking cruelty to Alise, they also live under a terrible restriction from the perspective of the cultural taboo against non-heterosexual relations. The power-plays here represent a complex discussion with no easy answers.
That said, I am looking forward to the next book in the series, not champing at the bit for it. This is Robin Hobb delivering the sort of book I expect from Robin Hobb, not blowing my mind. It is worth your time, and I would recommend it, but I’m not sure I’d advise new readers of Robin Hobb to start here.