Dragon Haven by Robin Hobb

Dragon Haven by Robin Hobb
Volume Two of the Rain Wilds Chronicles
Eos/HarperCollins Publishers, 2010, ISBN 978-0-06-193141-3

In Dragon Keeper, the first volume of Robin Hobbs’ Rain Wild Chronicles, we met Alise Kincarron Finbok, member of prominent Bingtown Trader society and self-made dragon scholar.  We also met Thymara, child of the Rain Wilds, chosen to be one of a select group of natives to accompany the newly hatched dragons in their migration from their nursery at Cassarick to the fabled city of Kelsingra.  And we met the dragons themselves, sharply sentient creatures that had all but disappeared from the Rain Wilds.

But we also learned the darker stories behind the bright spin.  That Alise was trapped in a loveless and cruel marriage, held in place by tradition and contract.  That her friend (and her husband’s secretary), Sedric, accompanied her on her trip up the Rain Wilds River with causes and motives that were far from noble.  That the dragon keepers were outcasts, physically marked by the wildness that defined the Rain Wilds, and whose eventual return to proper society was not expected nor desired.  That Kelsingra’s location and even existence was unknown and unproven.  And that the dragons themselves were stunted, contentious, vain, and even dangerous, incapable of taking care of themselves yet unappreciative of those who tended them and kept them alive.

In Dragon Haven, all these characters and twists grow and become more sharply defined.  As the dragons and their human entourage plunge deeper into the wild and further from civilization, struggles ensue, not just against the elements but against each other.  Secondary characters move to the fore, including the salty barge captain Leftrin, drawn to Alise yet harboring his own dark secrets and questionable motivations.  Also catalytic is Jess, one of the two hunters who suddenly appear to aid the expedition, yet who stirs up mistrust and division between the keepers and the crew while he pushes his own mercenary agenda.

Then there are the dragons.  They cease to be novelties and develop into full fledged, individualistic characters with their own unique personalities and quirks.  Spurred on by faint and incomplete ancestral memories, the dragons blunder forward with the confidence of the truly arrogant, leaving the rest of the expedition to follow along in their wake.  Some of the dragons begin to grow close to their keepers; others maintain haughty distance or even treat their keepers with distain.  A few seem to be too dull to respond much at all.

But then, catastrophic adversity strikes and the expedition is thrown into chaos.  Out of this, loyalties are tested, secrets are exposed, and perceptions are proven faulty even as survival is uncertain.  Regardless of opinion, all who make it through the crisis are forced to rely on each other as never before.  Through this, strengths and new discoveries spur the expedition ever onward.

Far more than a simply adventure tale, however, Robin Hobb continues to weave a theme of veracity of tradition throughout this second book of the Rain Wilds Chronicles.  Each of the characters, in their own way, questions the rules and restrictions that they had assumed – or had been assumed for them – at the onset of the journey.  But as civilization fades behind them, they push the boundaries of moral and ethical restrictions against a response demanded by the here and now.

For the young Rain Wilds keepers, this means that they no longer have to accept their future as short and solitary.  In Trader society, physically marked children are usually abandoned at birth; those who survive are not allowed to hold any positions of authority, maintain property, or even to form relationships with others or between themselves.  They cannot marry.  Any kind of sex is forbidden, for to have offspring is unthinkable.  They are expected to be the lowest of the low, the barely tolerated outcasts, dying young due to the burden the Rain Wilds extract from their very bodies, and are due to be quickly forgotten.

But now, they are masters of their own destinies.  They have no society to overlord long held tradition or mores, and are free to behave in ways that come naturally to young adults.  Couples pair up, the males compete for the attention of the females, and there is a jockeying for position and status.  One of the older keepers, Greft, bullies himself into a leadership position and fills the heads of the younger keepers with talk of casting off the yoke of their Trader society oppressors to establish their own city at Kelsingra, taking the fabled wealth of the Elderlings and prestige of the dragons for themselves.

As seen through the eyes of Thymara, an outcast who has nevertheless known the affection of a loving father, the rejection of expected and familiar rules is alarming.  She pushes back against Greft’s self-assumed leadership, and refuses to be “claimed” by any of the males, even though she is warned that her rejection will bring conflict to the newly evolving tribe.  All this new found freedom feels wrong to her even as she cannot deny the thrill of what they excite in her.  Still, she is not willing to trade one society’s restrictions for another’s assumed expectations – she demands to make her own decisions about herself and her relationships.

Alise is also having to come to grips of new found freedoms.  The further she travels from the society which also had enslaved her with traditions – how Trader wives are to behave, even in a loveless marriage – the more she is pulled by the possibility of affection and desire in the person of Captain Leftrin.  Should she continue to resist what she feels is right in order to fulfill her role as Mrs. Hest Finbok, or should she abandon restraint to follow her heart?  Will the allure of being able to grasp everything that has been denied her turn to dross once the expedition is over and her return to Trader society is eminent?  If she gives in to desire, she will have broken the contract between herself and Hest, and will have shamed herself and her family for generations to come.  Is the risk worth that?

Also fascinating is Hobbs’ treatment of human sexuality.  As the relationship of Hest and Sedric becomes clearer, it also becomes far darker than drawn in Dragon Keeper, allowing for a fascinating interplay of not only human longings, but also how easily fondness can be manipulated for power and cruel intentions.  Although the relationship between the dashing Trader and the infatuated underling is far more sophisticated and complex, it mirrors the interplay that develops between the keepers, playing exploitation against desire.  The question also rises, once broken, can the soul ever recover?

No where do these moral dilemmas come into sharper contrast than when one of the Rain Wilds keepers becomes pregnant – something that never would have been tolerated in civilized society, even in the Rain Wilds.  At first heralded defiantly as breaking tradition, it ultimately becomes poignantly apparent that not all traditions are built from superstition and repression but ultimately reflect a reality that cannot be overcome with lofty words and fierce desires.  It becomes tragically evident that some traditions do rise in order to protect and preserve, no matter how harsh they may seem.

It is this sticky and bewildering clash of traditional moralities versus unfettered freedoms that anchor Dragon Haven and give it a dimension beyond mere fantasy.  Hobbs has often utilized thinly disguised morality play in her works, but never has she done it as successfully as in Dragon Haven.  She skillfully resists being heavy handed in the extemporizing of conflicts and instead allows the unfolding actions of numerous characters to press her point, and the book shines under her restraint.  As the story reaches its transitory conclusion, we have a sense that while many of the issues presented in Dragon Haven may have appeared to have been resolved, the discoveries that have been gained will continue to present stumbling blocks and challenges in the next volume – and I, for one, am eager to find out where and how this will be played out as the Rain Wild Chronicles continue.

~ by arcticwren on September 30, 2010.

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