The Dragon Keeper: Robin Hobb

★★★½

The Rain Wild Chronicles: Book I

Those of you who followed my Robin Hobb reread a few months ago will remember that I had no plans to read The Rain Wild Chronicles. My heart has always been on the Farseer side of Hobb’s fantasy world and, when I finished The Tawny Man trilogy, I believed that storyline was tied up. Although I’d enjoyed The Liveship Traders, the Rain Wilds wasn’t necessarily a place I felt the need to go back to; and, moreover, I’d read a number of lukewarm reviews of the series. However, the situation has changed since then.

First, I heard about the impending publication, in early August, of the first book in a new trilogy about Fitz and the Fool. Secondly, in a stroke of unbelievable good fortune, I’ve been granted an advance review copy of this new book. And so it’s now important to read The Rain Wild Chronicles, because there may well be developments in this series that will affect Fitz’s story. More to the point, I’m not allowing myself to read the new book until I’m completely up to date.

Set in Bingtown and along the Rain Wild River, The Rain Wild Chronicles takes place a few years after the conclusion of the Liveship Traders trilogy. The sea serpents have made their torturous way up the Rain Wild River, under the dragon Tintaglia’s guidance, and formed their cocoons on the shore at Casserick. The Rain Wild Traders and their Bingtown colleagues wait with baited breath for the day when the transformed dragons will fight their way out of their cocoons and take to the skies again: the first batch in generations, and the beginning of a new world. But new worlds, as they’ll discover, have a habit of not living up to expectations.

When the newborn dragons struggle out of their cocoons they are stunted, half-made, deformed by their weakness as serpents and the unfortunate circumstances of their cocooning. Tormented by ancestral memories in which they could swoop and soar, these crippled creatures are earthbound and embittered, frustrated by their own lack of ability and causing ever greater concern to the human communities nearby. With food running short, the dragons clutch at the one thread of hope which might offer them a chance to recover the glories of their past: a half-formed memory of a place called Kelsingra. (I’m assuming this is the ruined city where Fitz managed to get lost on the way to the Mountain Kingdom in the Farseer trilogy.) But they will exact a price for their departure: they will need guides to protect them and hunt for them as they make their long and arduous journey up the Rain Wild River.

The Traders are keen to oblige: for them, it’s nothing but a relief to see the back of a group of hungry predators, and the obligation to provide guides and keepers also gives them to chance to tie up some other loose ends. Even among the relatively tolerant Rain Wild communities there are some who are too marked by the area’s strange magic to be accepted – and these young people find themselves invited to apply for the job of dragon keepers. Officially it’s a chance for adventure and independence; but in reality few of them see it for anything other than what it truly is: exile. And so they set off, dragons and humans, all of whom fall short of the ideal in some way, driven by a determination to reach this mystical promised land.

To paraphrase a conversation I was having with Heloise (and I hope she doesn’t mind), Hobb’s main characters always seem to be outcasts or outsiders of some kind. Her novels are driven by the conflict between the status quo and the threatening or destabilising force represented (consciously or not) by those on the edges of society. That theme comes into full force here, although the book ends with the outcasts bound into a new society of their own, to shape as they see fit. It’ll be interesting to see how that develops in the later books, although I can already see an element of survival-of-the-fittest coming into play. I should emphasise that, even though this story happens so soon after Ship of Destiny (contemporaneous with The Tawny Man, I presume, which explains Tintaglia’s extended absence), there is an almost entirely new cast of characters. A few old familiar faces do make appearances, but these are fleeting cameos rather than key roles and – for the most part – they seem to be there primarily to make the reader feel at home.

From the beginning, it becomes clear that our attention is going to be focused on new faces: the dragon Sintara, who claws her way out of her cocoon to discover that the physical realities of her new form fall far short of her dreams; young Thymara, whose Rain Wild heritage has given her disfigurements unsettling even to the usually blasé citizens of Trehaug; and scholarly Alise, who suffers a loveless marriage in return for the freedom to pursue her fascination with dragon lore. It struck me that Hobb has chosen three female perspectives for this first book, but in some ways I suppose it balances things out, what with the exclusively male point of view in the Farseer books and the more or less equal male and female viewpoints in the Liveship Traders.

I don’t yet feel entirely engaged with the characters, because much of this first book felt like scene-setting, and the plot was only just getting underway when it closed (so I’m glad I have the second book close to hand). As time goes by I’m sure I’ll warm to them; and in fact I’m predisposed to sympathise with Alise, as another freckled historian with mildly eccentric interests. Funnily enough I just can’t imagine her being a contemporary of Fitz, though: the Farseer books have always had a more medieval feel, whereas the Liveship trilogy felt positively 18th century (and in my mind Alise is decked out like a late-19th-century lady explorer with a parasol and buttoned boots). Generally speaking, though, the characters have been set up well and I feel that I have a good sense of all of them… with one exception.

Sedric. His characterisation is problematic at the moment, and not for the reason I’ve seen in some reviews, where people seem to be offended that the only gay main character is the villain. That is nonsense. Judging by Hobb’s very elegant treatment of gender in her earlier books, I think we can credit her with a trifle more sophistication than that. My problem with him is that he is uneven: far more uneven than is justified by his double-dealing. He blows hot and cold with no underlying logic, both in his changes of mind during the journey up to Casserick, and in his personality. On the one hand we are meant to believe (at least initially) that he is a warm and caring person, especially towards Alise; yet on the other, he transforms into a preening bigot the moment he embarks on their journey. It’s as if Hobb is trying too hard to show us that he’s untrustworthy when, in fact, it’s pretty obvious from the start. Hopefully with time he’ll settle down.

One more thing: I found myself looking forward to the little notes exchanged by Erek and Detozi, the bird-keepers of Bingtown and Trehaug, which form a coda to the main plot. These missives sometimes advance the plot by showing us the messages which other characters are sending back and forth between the two cities, but much of the time they give the impression of two people being so pleasantly immersed in their own lives and rivalries that they haven’t realised they’re only bit parts in someone else’s story.

In summary, this is enjoyable and basically much better than I’d been expecting, on the basis of the various reviews I’d read. It’s also very readable – I got through it in one day – and it’s a must-have if, like me, you intend to join Fitz and the Fool again in the near future. As the first book in a series it naturally takes a while to get going, but I hope that now we’ve got the world and characters all laid out we can take a deep breath and plunge gleefully into some action in the next instalment. Speaking of future instalments, Heloise has posted on the last two volumes in The Rain Wild Chronicles, so I’ll be linking to those reviews when I get to the appropriate stage in the series.

Buy the book

Next in the series: Dragon Haven

The by-now traditional Hobb Cover Feature is a little disappointing actually, because we haven’t yet had any really random or off-the-wall cover designs. Below, for your viewing pleasure, I include what I presume are the American, Dutch and German covers for the novel, as well as the new British edition. I think we can all agree that the American cover is quite attractive, artistic and does what it says on the tin (another Michael Whelan cover, I presume?). The Dutch cover is slightly on the odd side and implies that dragons spend most of their time hiding in shrubberies, but still… And I’m afraid that the wooden spoon once again goes to the German publishers (Heloise, will you have a word with them?) for managing to come up with a cover that bears absolutely no relation to the contents of the book. One must give them credit for consistency: they obviously found that brooding men in hooded red cloaks worked well for the earlier novels, and they’re determined to keep it going. I look forward to presenting you with different variations on the theme for later books in the series (I’m now going to be very disappointed if I find that they change tack halfway through).

5 thoughts on “The Dragon Keeper: Robin Hobb

  1. Heloise says:

    I can ease your mind in one thing – the current German covers to all of Robin Hobb's Elder Realms books feature red-cloaked assassin figures drawn in various poses and from various perspectives. It certainly does earn them points for consistency but not for much else, except maybe for the sheer insanity of it.

    Also (and I don't think I'm giving away any spoilers here) there'll be a lot more familiar faces in later books, even Fitz makes a brief appearance in absentia. As I mentioned in another conversation about the books, I'm wondering in retrospect if I wouldn't have liked the books better if I had read them in sequence instead of a year apart and under that aspect am even more curious than usual to your reaction. As for the lukewarm reviews of the books (my own included) I think those are owed to the feeling that the Rain Wild Chronicles fall somewhat short of her earlier work – taken for themselves, they're still excellent and way above most what is published in the Epic Fantasy genre today.

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    Re. the covers: thank you. I was worried about that. 😛

    And huzzah for the future cameos! Now I'm trying to figure out who might make such a cameo. I remember in “Fool's Errand” that Fitz talks about some time he and Nighteyes spent exploring in the Rain Wilds, but he can't turn up like that, because if I've got my chronology right then “The Dragon Keeper” is happening roughly at the same time as “Fool's Fate” if not even slightly afterwards (because Tintaglia already has her mate, Icefyre)… But I'm intrigued how he can turn up 'in absentia'. A dream? A Skill sending? Hmm. But maybe there's still hope for a cameo from the Fool, then. One of Hobb's trilogies wouldn't be complete without some kind of enigmatic appearance from him… Obviously though, please don't tell me! Just let me wander through blindly while watching me with amusement. That's the way it always works best 🙂

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