Since the mid and late 1990s, I’d heard of Robin Hobb. Friends had read and enjoyed The Farseer Trilogy, which evidently follows the life of a character named Fitz, but somehow I just haven’t managed to read anything by her until now.
That brings me to today and reading Hobb’s book The Dragon Keeper, which follows a prior series of hers — the Liveship Traders Trilogy. Most of Hobb’s books seem to take place in the kingdom called The Six Duchies. But The Dragon Keeper takes place in a part of her world known as the Rain Wilds — a rainforest with acidic rivers and strange creatures. This is most definitely a fantasy world and one with magic scattered throughout the setting and characters…
The story begins with a group of sea serpents heading inland and upriver to a place they can cocoon themselves and become dragons. Dragons have been missing from this world for a time and only recently one emerged from a long lost cocoon to become Tintaglia, an adult female dragon who helped the people of Bingtown fight off an invading force. In return, the people of Bingtown and the Rain Wilds agreed to help a group of sea serpents reach a suitable spot to metamorphose into more dragons to keep the species alive.
But as with Mother Nature and Fate in our own world, things don’t always quite go as planned. Many of the cocoons are destroyed outright or washed away by the floods that plague the area. Those that remain don’t mature properly and the dragons that emerge are not fully formed — stunted wings, odd body shapes, mismatched legs. Of those, only a handful survive and must be tended to by the Rain Wilders watching over them. The people hunt and fish in the area over the next several years trying to satiate the hunger of the dragons, but eventually the hunters must go further and further afield to find any suitable food. As a drain on local resources, the local council must decide what to do.
The other main threads are connected to the dragons one way or another…
Thymara, a girl of the Rain Wilds born with claws instead of fingernails, should have been left to die by her peoples’ customs — but her father saved her from that fate. As such, she is an outcast — shunned for being different. She witnesses the dragons emerge from their cocoons. When approached five years later to tend to the dragons, she leaps at the chance to prove her worth and helps in a plan to relocate the creatures.
Alise Kincarron, a Trader’s daughter in Bingtown, has doggedly pursued her interest in dragons and Elderlings (a small group of people changed by their exposure to the dragons). Though considered almost a spinster by society, she is courted by Hest Finbok, a Trader’s son and successful businessman in his own right. Hest proposes a marriage of convenience so that he may keep up appearances and perhaps gain an heir to his family fortune and she may continue her studies into the dragons. Alise gets the short end of this stick, but is promised a trip into the Rain Wilds to see and study the dragons firsthand as part of the marriage contract.
And Leftrin, captain of the barge Tarman, finds a wizardwood log — one of the dragon cocoons — washed far away into the woods of the Rain Wilds. Instead of selling the log to the highest bidder, he works the “wood” into the barge. Later on he and the Tarman are contracted to help lead the dragons upriver to an ancient dragon and Elderling city that all the dragons seem to remember as a shared memory…
To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to think of The Dragon Keeper when I started it.
I was immediately drawn to the character Thymara. As an outsider, she was simply trying to find some place to fit into the world. The relationship between her and her parents and her friend Tats, a tattooed ex-slave, seemed genuine. The pressures of society to cull the weak and unwanted are well known in our own world competed with the love of her father and provided a solid foundation for Thymara’s life in the trees.
However, Alise took a bit to grow on me. Especially when her “husband” forced himself on her on their wedding night. After I read that scene, I almost put the book down.
Many years ago I tried to read the book Lord Foul’s Bane by Stephen R. Donaldson. In the first few pages, the main character Thomas Covenant was involved in a rape. And I put the book down and got rid of all three books in the first trilogy, which had been given to me as a gift. I just couldn’t get past that one repugnant act of the main character.
The difference between the actions of Thomas Covenant and what happens to Alise in Hobb’s book was that it wasn’t instigated by Alise. She held a romantic view of her wedding night. Hest was merely there to consummate the marriage and try to get an heir out of the deal. Alise was merely a means to an end. Hest’s motives become clearer as the book goes on, but honestly I couldn’t get past that initial act to find any sympathy for him.
Beyond that scene with Hest and Alise, the book continued at a steady pace. By the time the Rain Wild children are chosen as keepers for the dragons, things picked up significantly and I really found it enjoyable. But this isn’t what I would consider light fantasy by any stretch. There are real relationships and character motivations that provide plenty of tension at various points in the story. Yes, there are magical creatures and items (like a tea pot that warms water with a touch) and the setting is medieval in nature. But it’s the characters that make this an interesting read.
If you’re looking for a mature fantasy read with some complex characters, definitely check out Robin Hobb’s book The Dragon Keeper. I look forward to seeing where the characters and story go in Dragon Haven, which is due out in May 2010.