Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb

Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb
Volume One of the Rain Wilds Chronicles
Eos/HarperCollins Publishers, 2010, ISBN 978-0-06-156162-7

CAUTION: This review contains spoilers.  Do not continue if you desire a pristine reading experience.

She’s back!

Not that she ever went away, really, but Robin Hobb is back in divine form with her first book in the Rain Wild Chronicles, in which she returns to the land of her Farseer, Liveship Traders and Tawny Man trilogies.

Don’t get me wrong – I feel that Robin Hobb is one of the best and most accessible fantasy writers of our time, with strong characters and truly unique settings and situations.  I mean, how many writers would be confident enough to have the main hero link his power with being morbidly obese?  But her last series, the Soldier Son Trilogy, faltered badly in execution if not in idea.

In her return to the Realm of the Elderlings, Hobb is back on solid footing.  Taking place after the Liveship Traders and Tawny Man trilogies and with a few appearances from some of the characters in those other sets, this book holds its own with enticing new elements both in setting and personae dramatis.

Alise Kincarron hails from a Bingtown Trader family that has fallen on hard times.  Poor, plain, and not exactly vivacious, she has resigned herself to a spinster life where her main joy will come from her continuing study of the rare dragons of the Rain Wilds, and the legends of the beings known as Elderlings, the dragon keepers.  As a youngster, Alise had witnessed the power of the dragon queen Tintaglia who had come to the aid of Bingtown during a fierce battle against Chalcedean Raiders – if not for the dragon’s aid, Bingtown would have fallen.  In return for Tintaglia’s efforts, the Bingtown Trader families agreed to assist in reintroducing dragons to the Rain Wilds by shepherding the serpents that trolled the sea outside of Trader Bay (and were actually dragon spawn) up the toxic Rain Wilds River to an adequate nesting ground at the Rain Wilds Traders outpost of Cassarick.

Touched by this romantic tale of which she had been a bystander, Alise finds herself honing a schoolgirl infatuation with dragons into a truly scholarly effort, reading every scroll and treatise she can find regarding not only the mythic beasts, but also their mysterious keepers.  However, her family’s financial status curtails her dream of traveling to the Rain Wilds themselves, to observe the newly hatched clutch of dragons, and to learn from them firsthand their ancestral memories.

Enter handsome, charming, wealthy Trader Hest Finbok.  He inexplicably initiates a courtship of Alise, much to her consternation and to the delight of her parents.  Eventually Hest confides in Alise that although he is expected to take a wife, he has no interest in the social obligations that come with marriage, worrying that it will inhibit the life he has grown to love – one of travel, deal mongering, adventure and cohorting with his inner cadre of Trader friends.  He proposes a partnership with Alise – she will be allowed her studies, with his monetary backing and his blessing, and she will in turn allow him to come and go at will, as is his custom.  He assures her that he will not carouse or bring shame to the marriage, and that he will be her true husband and attempt to father children to continue the Finbok line, but will not pressure her for other obligations as his wife.

Although Alise is at first skeptical of his proposal, Hest does seem to be very attentive to her interests, indulging her with rare manuscripts and little tokens meant to demonstrate his support of her studies.  He also acquiesces to underwrite her travel to the Rain Wilds to see the famed dragon hatchings firsthand, as a wedding gift.  Knowing that she may not ever have another chance at marriage, let alone one that seems so advantageous to both parties, she accepts Hest’s proposal, and they are married in a long and detailed service of contract, as is tradition in Bingtown society.

At first caught up in her fairy tale wedding and the flush of a new relationship, it soon becomes obvious to Alise that Hest indeed is not interested in her as a life partner, merely as a figurehead of expectations.  He quickly becomes remote, even brusque to her, and spends more time traveling than he does at home.  He does honor his commitment to attempting to conceive a child with Alise, but these visitations to her room are devoid of any kind of tenderness or care.  But although his words and demeanor in private become more caustic and bitter, he abides by the contract drawn up between them; even though Alise secretly fears he gives his attention to other women, he is adroit enough to not be caught up in any indiscretion.

To escape the sham that her life has become, and to rediscover a sense of self-confidence that has been steadily eroding, Alise forces the issue of her trip to the Rain Wilds, despite Hest’s objections.  She does acquiesce to being accompanied by his secretary and personal attendant – Sedric Meldar, an old friend of Alise’s, and the son of another Bingtown Trader family fallen on hard times.  While Alise believes Sedric’s role during her journey will be to alleviate any potential charges of impropriety, Sedric knows that he has been commanded to assist Alise as a punishment of his defense of her actions – and therein lies a completely different tale.

But Alise is not the dragon keeper of the title of this book.  That is Thymara, a child of the Rain Wilds, living with her mother and father in the treehouse city of Trehaug, gathering food and flowers in the canopy of the great trees, more comfortable in the branches and limbs above ground than on solid land.  But she is more than just a child of the Rain Wilds – she is different from the others around her.  For Thymara has thick, black claws at the end of her fingers, marking her as an anomaly, even in the exotic Rain Wilds – a child that tradition dictates should have been abandoned to the elements at birth.  Due to a loving father, she was rescued from that early fate, growing and thriving under his tutelage and protection yet always knowing that she is not accepted in Rain Wilds society.

When the call goes out for volunteers to become dragon keepers, Thymara jumps at the chance.  There has only been one group of dragon hatchlings in living memory – those that currently reside near Cassarick.  But the endeavor to reintroduce the dragons to the Rain Wilds has not gone according to hopes and expectations.  The trip up the river was harder than expected with many of the serpents perishing; those who did make it to the nesting ground were weak, old and worn out.  Their arrival at the nesting grounds occurred much later in the season than was healthy, allowing for too short of a gestation period.  The cocoons that the serpents made for themselves were weak and often inadequate for the long stasis of metamorphosis, not dug deeply enough in the sheltering earth, too open to the elements, too cold during the winter.  More serpents died.  Finally, the hatching process began too soon, and the dragons that emerged were feeble, malformed, and incapable of flight, or even hunting for their own food.  Only a handful of the original tangle of serpents that set out up the Rain Wilds River lived to grow, but even these were not the dragons of lore.  Although many of them still held their ancestral memories, they did not know how to interpret them.  Some, however, were not much better than beasts.

The dragons became querulous, aggressive, dangerous.  Adequate game to feed the always voracious dragons became scarce, and were it not for the brokered deal between Tintaglia and the Bingham Traders – and the potential value of learning the location of other ancient Elderling cities that the dragon’ memories may divulge – the youngsters would have been abandoned to whatever fate awaited them.  Instead, however, playing on ancestral images of a mythical dragonhome, it was decided that the dragons would undertake a migration further up the Rain Wild River to the legendary city of Kelsingra.  That no human navigation of the Rain Wild River has ever encountered such a city, and no evidence of it exists other than decaying manuscripts and fleeting glimpses from a few of the dragons’ ancestral memories does not defer the Trader families from hiring a crew to tend to the dragons as they migrate up the river.  That these “dragon keepers” are also outcasts and misfits in Rain Wilds society is not lost on anyone – none of them are truly expected to return.

All this exposition only scratches the surface of the story that is initiated in Dragon Keeper.  How Alise becomes involved with the migratory expedition, and the yet unfolding intrigue behind the boat captain that has been contracted to ferry the supplies for the keepers up the river, as well as the complex relationships between Alise and Sedric, Sedric and Hest, Thymara and the other keepers, and even the dragons amongst themselves and the people who interact with them, are richly drawn and fleshed out by the author.

Dragon Keeper signals a return of Robin Hobb at her best.  She effortlessly sets the stage for the reader and then keeps spiraling deeper and deeper into the Rain Wilds environment, and the psyche of its people, to build an enthralling story that unfolds into an engaging panoply of her immersive world.  I thoroughly enjoyed Dragon Keeper and will eagerly be reading the second volume in the trilogy – Dragon Haven – in the next few days.  Look for my review of the continuing story of Thymara, Alise, and the dragons of the Rain Wilds soon!

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~ by arcticwren on August 26, 2010.

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