A book by Silvana Franco
Admittedly, I arrived to the Robin Hobb party quite late in the grand scheme of things. Having just discovered the Farseer Trilogy a few years ago, I became quite enamored with the work immediately (especially the first two books of the series) to the point where I was ashamed to have considered myself a fantasy aficionado for so long prior to discovering her wonderful writing. From there it became my mission to seek out and add as many of her corresponding works to my collection and though solid, none managed to recapture that incredible spark I found in Farseer (perhaps the Tawny Man Trilogy coming closest).
Enter Dragon Keeper, the first in a two part series called the Rain Wilds Chronicles. While set in the same Universe as Hobb’s former titles, the series is a self-contained tome following a unique cast of individuals but primarily told through two female characters from very different backgrounds. Unlike Farseer and Tawny Man, Robin Hobb crafts this story completely through third person narration and if I may begin my review by drawing a vague comparison, I would have to state that the Rain Wilds Chronicles most closely resembles Hobb’s Liveship Traders Trilogy both in terms of structure and theme. In fact it’s a pretty safe conclusion to suggest that fans of the Liveship Traders series will find slipping into this piece an effortless transition (and in my own personal hierarchy of Hobb’s works, this represents a tier below Farseer/ Tawny Man but certainly an improvement over the Soldier Son Trilogy).
If all this name-gaming is coming off as confusing, rest assured, this is a book that can be approached by individuals with absolutely no prior experience in the fantastical worlds of Robin Hobb. A general understanding of her rich timelines will likely enhance the experience but is by no means a prerequisite.
That said, Dragon Keeper’s prose goes something like this: On the muddy banks of an acidic river outside the ancient city of Cassarick, an ancient ritual calls hundreds of massive serpents to migrate upstream from the ocean depths. Only unlike salmon that make the trip to spawn and die, sea serpents conclude by wrapping themselves in a hardened casing in which to undergo the metamorphosis into dragons.
Considering the near extinction of the species, the hatching is crucial and quite discouraging when the few animals that survive the transformation are deformed or stunted. Tending and feeding these crippled beasts is unbelievably taxing to the inhabitants of the Rain Wilds surrounding the river and the solution involves an exodus to a place that may or may not actually exist.
In the mean time we follow along on the despondent misadventures of a wealthy Bingtown Trader’s wife named Alise Kincarron, who, due to her inability to attract suitors, devotes her life to the study of both dragons and their near-mythical tenders, Elderlings.
The book is structured so that chapters typically alternate between characters (ala George RR Martin) but at not quite at the brisk (or vast) scope Martin has mastered throughout the years. Rather, Hobb weaves her tale so that the seemingly disconnected story threads do come together nicely by the end of this, the first entry in the series.
I suppose had this been the first book of Hobb’s I encountered (opposed to Farseer), I would likely have simply lumped her into the category of above-average fantasy story tellers and moved along with little more interest than that. This isn’t to suggest that the book is substandard in any specific regard, but rather that it plods along at its own pace without ever managing to let one aspect shine above the rest.
Hobb is known for her bleak and oft depressing tones but for whatever reason, the formula isn’t quite as successful here as it has been in past efforts. I believe that part of the problem stems from the fact that it’s difficult to find a character with whom to relate entirely. The reader gets basically to choose from a snotty aristocrat, a battered wife, or an outcast teenage mutant girl, none of whom manage to capture the type of concern from the reader that merits full emotional attachment. There are universal themes and moments of struggle common to the human condition throughout, but were I to attempt to isolate a single theme most prevalent throughout, I would have to go with oppressed women (with a hint of male chauvinism thrown in for good measure).
Worse still is that much of the story centers on a pack of gimpy dragons in need of rescue but their personalities, for the most part, manage to repulse far more effectively than even the most obnoxious humans in the cast (and believe me, there are some dandies). I bring all of this up not because I wish to put down Robin Hobb’s work but rather because I never felt a strong connection throughout, not only with just the characters themselves, but with their motivations as well. For the most part their actions are all driven by depression, oppression, and exile… Were any one of them able to fulfill their lofty ambitions, it’s quite unlikely that their life situation would improve much anyway (and obviously it’s hard to get excited about that).
Interestingly, and while I’m advocate to the theory that not all fantasy must be set in medieval Europe, Hobb seems to have gone to great length to structure aspects of this tale to resemble near-contemporary English/ North American settings. It would be no exaggeration to confess that at times (particularly Alise’s sections) one might be fooled into thinking they had accidentally picked up the script to James Cameron’s blockbuster, Titanic. A trait only further driven home by her antagonist Hest Finbok, who bears an uncanny similarity to Caledon “Cal” Hockley, Billy Zane’s character in said film.
One point of interest is Hobb’s choice to slip single-page correspondence between the chapters that are passing between the keepers of the carrier pigeons of Bingtown and Trehaug. Not only do they do a nice job of letting the reader know how much time has passed between chapters, they paint a nice image of the happenings concerning the two lands. Additionally, they are structured in the factious calendar of the realm, which was definitely a nice touch.
Also worthy of praise is the inclusion of a Cast of Characters at the beginning, which works as a handy reference piece later on when the threads begin to intertwine.
In all I suspect that a bit of my disappointment with this novel stems from the pedestal on which I’ve placed Robin Hobb upon after completing the Farseer Trilogy. Her work was moody, dark, and certainly depressing at times but the connection with the characters and the flawlessness in their ambitions made the rough stuff worth enduring (and all the more satisfying when overcome). Unfortunately Dragon Keeper is congruent only in that it maintains a melancholy-view of life in a fantastical setting. The characters, their struggles, and the overall plot are simply not quite engaging enough to warrant the commitment of the journey. I will say without spoiling it for anyone that the coolness of the Liveships (especially Paragon) and a twist to Hest’s character near the end are two of the book’s shining moments. Otherwise, a decent, if slightly above average entry to the fantasy genre with glints of promise that will hopefully come to fruition in the second (and final) book of the series.
What did you think of this review?
A book by Silvana Franco
Mini-series of young adult novels by Ann Brashares
A memoir of a girl growing up in New York
The story of the murder of two well-loved Harvard professors