Blood of Dragons (2013): Robin Hobb

★★★ ½

The Rain Wild Chronicles: Book IV

In the fourth and final volume of the Rain Wild Chronicles, we rejoin our young keepers and their dragons in the ruined Elderling city of Kelsingra. With most of the company still stranded on the far side of the river and game growing scarce, it becomes increasingly important for the dragons to learn to fly before they become too large and heavy for their untried wings. Heeby and Sintara, who have made it into Kelsingra, have discovered marvellous baths and warm rooms which have improved their strength and growth: finally, it seems that their ancestral dreams of glory might be within reach after all.

But it isn’t only the dragons who find unexpected marvels in the Elderling ruins. The city’s memory stones offer a wealth of detail about Kelsingra’s history and significance, along with glimpses of the lives of those who once lived there. But how safe are these memories? Rapskal believes that immersion in the past can recover Elderling culture, but others have started to note the increased blurring of lines between his past and his present: that he grows less and less like merry, irresponsible Rapskal and more and more like the belligerent Elderling leader Tellator, whose memories he has been so voraciously plundering. And why are there troubling gaps in what the stones record? What is the Silver which the dragons are beginning to crave so desperately? And why doesn’t Kelsingra offer any clue as to where it can be found?

While these young people struggle to understand the fabulous new world they’ve wandered into, danger comes ever closer. Newly-built ‘impervious’ barges are challenging the liveships’ monopoly over travel up the river, and as Leftrin returns from Casserick he finds he has unwelcome followers. Tintaglia, the great queen dragon, is making her laborious way home after suffering a potentially fatal injury, but finds herself in the sights of a band of Chalcedean dragon-hunters. And Alise’s estranged husband Hest struggles closer to Kelsingra, dreaming of claiming his part of the treasure-city’s profits and drawing both his wife and Sedric back into his shadow. Far away, in Chalced, Selden Vestrit finds himself sold into the service of the Duke, who (rather worryingly) discovers that an Elderling’s blood has an effect almost as restorative as that of dragon’s blood. Time is running out for everyone, and the moment is fast approaching when a new world order has to be settled.

There’s plenty of action in this instalment and, as the characters grow towards their full potential, I felt they became correspondingly more engaging. Having been fond of Alise throughout, I was rather moved by her development here, as she learns to accept that her desire for museum-like preservation has no place in Kelsingra’s future. Another development that particularly gripped me, of course, was Rapskal’s: although his companions are afraid that he’s losing himself in the past, Rapskal’s own attitude is that it’s sometimes worth giving up part of yourself in order to have the advantages of knowledge and understanding that you gain in return. An interesting counter-argument, and one that could be applied to the Skill in general.

Throughout the series I’ve been trying to fit what we see into my existing framework of the Wit and Skill, and attempting to understand where we can draw parallels. To be honest, I’m not sure how well I’ve succeeded: are the keepers’ bonds to their dragons primarily Wit or Skill bonds, or perhaps a mixture of the two? Was I right in suspecting that Leftrin might be Wit-bonded to the ship’s cat? As ever, Hobb’s world-building in this respect is perfectly judged: she tells us just enough to make it feel natural and familiar, but not enough to destroy the spell by making it all too explicit. That has always been one of her great talents.

Alongside these more magical aspects there were some very satisfying moments of human drama: I’m not going to say anything about Hest, except to note that it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving chap. However, I still thought the pace was a little uneven. Although there was a lot going on throughout the book, there was an abrupt change of tempo in the final chapters (and here I have to talk about minor spoilers, so please be careful). The whole business of the attack on Chalced felt slightly like an afterthought: I’d usually expect such a campaign, with its planning and description and aftermath, to take up a considerable part of the book, but it isn’t even mentioned until three quarters of the way through. As I found the pages dwindling, I wondered whether we were even going to see the battle, or whether it was going to happen off-stage, despite being (surely?) a crucial part of Kelsingra’s bid for safety and independence. Perhaps the brevity was the very point: if you anger dragons, then the response is likely to be a short, sharp shock? But, even so, it felt a bit too brief: this is the moment of triumph, after all!

All the way through this final book I’ve been trying to assess my feelings about the series as a whole. I don’t know whether I might have felt differently about the books if I’d read them with more time between them, because barrelling through them all in one go means that I’m particularly sensitive to repetition or excessive exposition. That aside, though, there is no doubt that the Rain Wild Chronicles made less of an impact on me than the Farseer books; and I suspect that might be because it sticks more closely to fantasy conventions. By that, I mean that you could have predicted more or less how the story would end up from a relatively early stage, which hasn’t been the case with Hobb’s trilogies.

Indeed, what always interested me so much about Hobb when compared to other fantasy writers is that she deliberately didn’t take the expected path. If she had, then by the end of Assassin’s Quest Fitz would have been hailed as the next king of the Six Duchies. It’s precisely because Hobb decided not to do this, and gave her hero a less predictable and more painfully realistic path, that I find him and her stories about him so endlessly engaging. The story arc in the Rain Wild Chronicles, however, is a familiar one of the misfits bonding together, finding their inner strength and proving that thanks to their magical powers they can triumph over the forces of evil.

That makes it a completely solid, readable and enjoyable fantasy series, which is still head-and-shoulders above many other novels in the genre; but it doesn’t have the magnetic blend of grit, power and raw characterisation that has made Hobb’s other books such enduring favourites. Having said all this, I do believe that it is essential to read this if you’re planning to continue on with the new trilogy. The world is certainly no longer the place it used to be, and I am pretty certain that the new books will be affected to some degree by the changes at Kelsingra.

For another point of view, you can read Heloise’s thoughts on Blood of Dragons here.

Buy the book

Last in the series: City of Dragons

And now it’s time for the final Cover Feature. There isn’t much variation in the American and British covers, which essentially use the same concept with slightly different artwork; I rather love the monochrome variation which shows a pencil sketch of the dragon and rider in flight, rather than the finished version. Somehow it has more energy to it (or perhaps it’s just that I like drawings). Finally, I’m glad to report that the Dutch edition hasn’t let us down at the final hurdle. It’s blue, ladies and gentlemen! A blue shrub to end the series…

P.S. Just to forewarn anyone who’s interested in finding out about the new book: I won’t be posting on Fool’s Assassin until closer to its publication date in early August.

4 thoughts on “Blood of Dragons (2013): Robin Hobb

  1. Heloise says:

    Seems like our overall assessment of this series is not all that different after all, then, even though I read the novels as they were released and you read them in one go. 😛

    And I think you are spot on with your observation that where The Rain Wild Chronicles fall off compared to her earlier work is that, when everything is said and done, they do not deviate all that much from the standard Epic Fantasy quest model. I wonder if that might not be a result to the rather mixed reaction to her preceeding work, the Soldier Son trilogy where she burns the bridges to pretty much every single Epic Fantasy trope in existence, For my part, I still think this trilogy is her best work today, but it also put off a lot of her fans – so lets hope that she manages to strike the balance between doing the unexpected and appealing to readers in her new trilogy which, like most of her fans, I'm looking forward to with bated breath. 😉

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    Yes, I was amused to discover that our take on things was so similar. Even my opening words were virtually the same as yours! Once I knew I'd be reading Rain Wild, I deliberately didn't read your reviews again until after I'd done my posts, but maybe I was still subconsciously influenced by having read them a while ago 🙂

    I've always been interested by your affection for the Soldier Son trilogy, which – considering that we seem to have very similar tastes – I would probably enjoy, if only I could get into it. But I started the first book and just couldn't engage with it at all… perhaps because it was so different (and in a different world) from what I was used to with Hobb. Maybe one day I will have another go. But not quite yet…

  3. Heloise says:

    I can see why people have difficulties with the Soldier Son – it has hardly any plot at all, a protagonist who has almost no agency, and consists mainly of very long, very detailed descriptions. It's really barely a Fantasy novel, but more like slightly displaced 19th century novel set in the American West, and that's just something most Fantasy readers are used to. I think part of the reason why I enjoyed it so much is that I have read (and liked) quite a lot of Victorian novels in my time, and that trilogy is really closer to those than to the Lord of the Rings.

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