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Monday, January 11, 2010

“Dragon Keeper” by Robin Hobb (Reviewed by Robert Thompson)

Official Robin Hobb Website
Order “Dragon KeeperHERE (US) + HERE (UK)
Read An Excerpt HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Robin Hobb is the author of the Farseer, Liveship Traders, Tawny Man, and Soldier Son trilogies. She is also the author of Wizard and the Pigeons, The Windsingers, and Cloven Hooves, written under the name Megan Lindholm. Her short fiction has won the Asimov’s Readers’ Award and has been a finalist for both the Nebula and Hugo awards.

PLOT SUMMARY: After many years, dragons have hatched again outside the ancient city of Cassarick. But something is wrong with the creatures; each is inferior or deformed in some way, unable to fly, and but a mere resemblance of the powerful, shining dragons of old. As a result, only a handful of the creatures have survived. Even so, tending these stunted dragons has left the people of the surrounding area weary. The Traders Council, the city’s leadership, fears that if the Rain Wilders stop providing for the young dragons, the hungry and neglected creatures will rampage and destroy Cassarick.

To avert catastrophe, the council rules to relocate the young dragons to a “better location” up river, and residents are recruited to escort the valuable yet fearsome creatures on the arduous journey. Among them are Thymara, a young Rain Wilds girl outcast because of her deformities; Alise Kincarron Finbok, a wealthy and deeply unsatisfied Bingtown Trader’s wife who has made it her life's work to study all there is to know of dragons; Sedric Meldar, Hest Finbok’s secretary and a friend of Alise’s since childhood; and Leftrin, grizzled captain of the river barge Tarman.

Witnessed from the viewpoints of these individuals as well as the blue dragon queen Sintara, “Dragon Keeper” tells the story of a disparate band of humans and dragons as they make their way along the toxic and inhospitable Rain Wild River in search of their new home—the ancient, long-lost city of Kelsingra...

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 seventeen 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 standalone 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 (see below) was published on June 25, 2009 via HarperVoyager. US ARC provided by the publisher.

ANALYSIS: Robin Hobb is one of my favorite authors, but of all her books, the Liveship Traders Trilogy 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. Plus, the characters in “Dragon Keeper” 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. While 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, 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 the Liveship Traders Trilogy, 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...


Anonymous said...

After reading Tawny Man and the Second Son series, I have sworn NEVER to read another Robin Hobb book again. Lord, they are sooooo slow and boring. Sorry.

Robert said...

Nothing to be sorry for Anonymous. If the last couple of series didn't do anything for you, then this one probably wouldn't either. Still, I do think you're missing out. Robin Hobb is a brilliant author as long as you know what to expect...

Mike said...

I am susprised. I love the liveship series. I have yet to tackle the Second Son series as it sounds to be the worse of the bunch...

raul said...

her last series(the forest mage, second son) was so personal and soul-shaking to me, personally,...i share with you the the dislike/apathy for the ship series.

I think the ADD mentality among readership is just the younger generation's crutch of instant satisfaction entertainment...i am glad someone like robin hobb is commercially successful in the manner('so slow' to quote the person above) of her writing.

Robert said...

Mike, I've never been able to pinpoint why the Liveship Traders series was my least favorite. All I know is that out of all of Ms. Hobb's books, including the Soldier Son trilogy, it resonated the least with me...

As far as the Soldier Son trilogy, I think it's one of the author's most rewarding works. The key though is finishing the trilogy, because it's basically one huge book broken into three separate volumes. Reading volumes 1 & 2 by itself won't do much for the reader. It's in volume 3 that you get the payoff...

Raul, you're one of the few I know that shares the same opinion with me about the Liveship Traders series. And you're right about the Soldier Son's 'soul-shaking'. A great description!

I also hear you about instant gratification, and I hope that Ms. Hobb will continue to be successful for as long as she's writing...

Scott said...

Personally, I really enjoyed the Liveship Traders Trilogy and I'm very much looking forward to back there with "Dragon Keeper". Robin Hobb has been one of my favorite authors from the moment I read "Assassin's Apprentice", but I was disappointed with the Soldier Son Trilogy. It had its moments but I felt the pacing was inconsistent and the story at times just lost its focus. I am hoping (and expecting) to get more with Hobb's latest.

Galadín Nimcelithil said...

Robin Hobb's books have always inspired me and I have yet to find a single paragraph written by her that I don't like. Simply put, her books are what I've always been waiting for when it came to reading fantasy. Unsurprisingly, her new series has captured me completely. The diverse characters, both those you love and love to hate, once again give such vigor to the story. It is wonderful (and distressing at the same time) to find out what became of Maulkin and the rest and to see thier personalities that we got to know when they were in their serpent form, mature with their evolving draconic stage.

The only thing that could make this series improve any more is if my darling favourite character returned to the scene, albeit in a mysterious disgiuse.

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