Verdict: Intriguing, well written and emotionally provocative. A great and enjoyable fantasy book.
I’ll be honest, it feels really strange to be writing a Robin Hobb book review and not being in a state of complete emotional trauma. I have long associated Hobb with tears, lengthy, horrified rants and exclamations that I will never again open myself up to such literary heartache (ha!). The Dragon Keeper by comparison was… pleasant. I thoroughly enjoyed my return to Bingtown and the Rain Wild; it welcomed me like an old home and it was like I’d never left. I have no real criticisms of the book at all. Although, at a stretch, I’d say that I only gave it 4 out of 5 stars because it lacked the emotional depth and investment to be able to traumatise me, and didn’t have a fantastic ‘grey area’ villain like Captain Kennit… but then, that is true of most books!
The story follows a group of Rain Wild ‘misfits’ – children and teenagers who have been heavily marked by their forest home and who are ousted from their society because of it. They choose to escape their limited lives in Trehaug and instead accompany a group of equally disfigured dragons, who are unable to fly and are slowly becoming troublesome for the rest of the Rain Wild folk. At the same time, a young woman called Alise Finbok, from Bingtown, seeks to escape her stilted sham of a marriage and experience adventure for once in her life. A keen scholar of all things dragon and Elderling, she and her husband’s (male) secretary, Sedric, travel up on a boatman’s, Leftrin, vessel. Leftrin has his own problems – his dealings with wizardwood have left him open to blackmail from the Chalcedeans, who are not people you want to mess with. And things slowly start to change from there.
As always, Hobb manages to create a story that is at once slow-moving but deep and gripping. I am never bored reading her books and The Dragon Keeper was no exception to this rule. I loved many characters; Thymara’s feisty sense of self and sturdy grasp of her own morality; Tats’ adorable and loyal nature; Rapskal’s incessant optimism and Alise’s slow exploration of her own individual power as both a scholar and a woman. I even liked Sintara, the largest of the dragon queens (female dragons; male dragons are called drakes), just because she offered the story a great, self-entitled and arrogant female, which was a wonderful contrast to the mirror-image male offerings of Hest and Greft…
Hesssssssst. Since Kyle Haven, of Liveship Traders fame, I have never loathed a man more. Hest angered me in scenes he wasn’t even in, only mentioned, and I keep wanting him to be melted into pulp by one of the dragon’s poison spray. Or eaten. Eaten is also good, as long as he was alive and screaming as he went down and slowly disintegrated, in pure agony, in said dragon’s stomach acid. But I digress. Greft was also infuriating but, like Thymara, I find him more intriguing. Like Kyle Haven, I can see where Greft is coming from. He wants to take control of his life after so long being shoved to one side and shamed for what he looks like. He is a product of his upbringing, as was Kyle Haven, whereas Hest just… UGH. I loathe Hest more than I loathe the idea of cheating – and this is proved by the fact that I can’t wait for Leftrin and Alise to throw caution and their clothes to the wind and act on their impulses.
On a slightly less rant-inspired note, it’s wonderful to see each of the dragons having their own distinct characters too, especially after all they went through to cocoon themselves as their ancestors did. Clearly, their journey is not over yet, but I have high hopes that a visit to Kelsingra and a certain funky-coloured river might be the answer to all their problems. I particularly enjoyed the fact that the lovely sea serpent Maulkin from Liveship Traders has transformed into the equally lovely and just Mercor. Seeing the contrast between how dragons and humans thought of themselves and thought of each other was at time amusing and frustrating. I’m particularly curious to see the type of relationship Sintara will develop with Thymara, her keeper, and what will become of the copper dragon. And oh! It was great to read about Paragon again, and see Althea and Brashen aboard his deck… although I am curious about Malta, now that she has been turned into an Elderling, and time spent with her character in Trehaug was all too brief. I didn’t realise how much I missed these characters until I was presented with a new story involving them.
The plot itself moved as Hobb’s book always does; nothing really appears to be happening until you reach the end and you realise that everything has happened. One of the themes of the book that I took to heart was the treatment of anyone who didn’t look as they should. Without fail, they were treated like pariahs; often with violent contempt by unenlightened characters who advocated the idea of abortion or infanticide due to perceived ‘deformities’. Each keeper has their own opinion on this and their own experience of prejudice. Like the dragons, who Paragon says ‘Are not real dragons’ because they are malformed when compared to Tintaglia, the dragon keepers are considered wretched. It quickly becomes apparent – even to Leftrin, who is a Rain Wilder, born and raised with this backwards idea – that everyone has their own worth regardless of their appearance and abilities. I look forward to how this concept develops – will the Rain Wild Council stop their barbaric policy of infanticide? Will the keepers set up their own society for others just like them? Will the dragons see themselves as ‘proper dragons’?
So, basically, I’m filled with joy at having another Hobb book waiting for me now that I’ve finished this one, and I can’t wait to start it. I have a feeling that Sedric’s utterly stupid and horrifying actions in the last few chapters will have an incredibly deep impact. I just hope that, having so thoroughly enjoyed this one without being traumatised, there isn’t some kind of horrific experience waiting for me in Dragon Haven. We shall see…