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Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings series of books so far include The Farseer, Liveship Traders and The Tawny Man trilogies, and continues with The Rain Wild Chronicles, which are also set in this alternative European Medieval world.
Published in 2009, The Dragon Keeper is the first title in the Chronicles and follows almost immediately on from the events that occurred in the first three trilogies. Set in a time of fragile peace the story mostly takes place in the Rain Wilds where the residents bear physical afflictions from life there and the towns and cities are built high in the trees that line the riverbank.
The dragon Tintaglia has fulfilled the agreement she signed with the Trader cities and protected them against the invading Chalcedeans, so it’s now time for the Traders to complete their end of the deal. They are to help the ailing serpents migrate up the Rain Wild River in order for them to hatch from their cocoons into dragons. But the serpents were too old and emerged from their cases too soon, and the few that have survived are stunted dragons, unable to fend for themselves and costing the Trading cities a fortune to take care of.
When Tintaglia herself abandons the weak creatures after finding a surviving male dragon, the people of the Rain Wilds are left wondering whether to break their agreement. They are only too eager to comply when the dragons manipulate them into planning a trip up river to the legendary Elderling City of Kelsinger, which exists in their hazy ancestral memories.
As usual, Hobb expertly builds the narrative from varying points of view. Thymara, a sixteen-year-old girl who has black claws and scaling on her skin, is one of the dragon keepers that the ruthless Rain Wild Council enlists to travel the unchartered waters of the Rain Wild River. Alise Finbok is escaping from Bingtown and a loveless marriage in the hopes of using her knowledge of dragons to become an established scholar. Captain Leftrin owns the liveship Tarman that will transport them all through the shallow, acidic waters of the Rain Wild River to the dragons’ homeland.
For fans of the previous books it will feel like coming home; a home populated by liveships and dragons, obviously. Any newcomers (although it’s highly recommended that you start with the phenomenal Farseer trilogy) will be treated to a fully-fledged world with its own rules, people, politics and magic.
What makes The Dragon Keeper unique is that it doesn’t build to your typical climatic final scene; it doesn’t need to. Its power lies in the way Hobb deftly and gently manipulates her readers into making assumptions of her characters, before just as deftly shattering that preconception. One such character is Sedric, Alise’s aid on her journey to the Wilds and close friend of her cruel husband, Hest. His hidden agenda overshadows the events in the book, and yet he obviously cares for Alise and the reader can’t help but emphasise with him. There’s no good or bad in the Hobb-iverse. Each of her characters, human and dragon alike, go on a journey of self-discovery – in this case quite literally – which is filled with hardship, heartbreak and love, and emerge changed, whether for better or good.
Writing under the Hobb pseudonym allows contemporary fantasy author Megan Lindholm to indulge in descriptive passages and linger on the fine details, which for the newcomer may seem daunting. But these tomes are an indulgence worth taking time over. The varying narratives and viewpoints allow for the reader to see something from all angles. The tree city of Cassarick is heart-wrenchingly beautiful, as described by Thymara, dizzyingly alien to Alise and disdained as barren by Sintara and the rest of the stunted dragons. The fine detail is never wasted and you know every line, every word spoken adds meaning to the story as a whole. Hobb is a masterful character author, and she painstakingly creates complex characters so believable they could walk off the page, complete with Rain Wild scaling.
The Dragon Keeper is Hobb on form. There are several jumps forward in time but this stops early on and the book settles into a smooth, well-oiled narrative. An amazing read in its own right, it also sets the course for the following title, Dragon Haven, in which the hidden agendas, conflicting motives and forbidden love interests established in this title must come to a head.