Dragon Haven: A character-driven quiet story

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews Robin Hobb The Rain Wild Chronicles 2. Dragon HavenDragon Haven by Robin Hobb

Dragon Haven istheconclusion to Robin Hobb’s Rain Wild Chronicles, which began with Dragon Keeper. In reviewing the first book, I said it was a difficult task to judge Dragon Keeper as it was mostly setup for what was to come (I believe it was originally supposed to be one novel but had to be split into two books for size). So now that it’s complete, how does the whole story hold up?

I’ve begun to wonder over the course of Hobb’s recent books if she is exploring how much plot she needs in her novels to actually have a “story.”  There is a lot of action in her earlier books, such as the Farseer Trilogy (and subsequent Fool’s books) and her Liveship Traders group. Then, in the Soldier Son Trilogy, there is almost none; it is primarily a slow study in character and culture (or culture clash). The Rain Wilds Chronicle seems to be a middle ground between the two. It’s almost as if she’s feeling her way to as quiet and minimalist a style (in terms of action, not language) as possible.

The reason, of course, that Hobb can get away with a spare plot is that she does character so damn well. While her earlier books were full of action, their true draw lay in their characters (including characters made of wood — you think that’s an easy thing to pull off?). In Soldier Son, the main character was sharply drawn but too unlikable for too long while the secondary characters suffered from a lack of depth, unusual for Hobb. That, coupled with a slow plot, made that series a difficult read, and it’s hard to say whether its strengths outweigh its weaknesses.

Here, Hobb has once again given us multiple fully fleshed characters, some likable and some less so, but nearly all of them interesting and several quite compelling. Which is good, because not much actually happens action-wise. In Dragon Keeper, a group of deformed dragons and equally deformed (“marked”) Rain Wilders join with a Liveship crew to travel up the Rain Wild River toward a mythical city. In Dragon Haven, the journey continues and then ends (I won’t say where). That’s pretty much it. They don’t fight any pitched battles along the way, don’t come across ancient cities or tombs to explore and accidentally uncover horrifying plot points, don’t save the world from some apocalyptic event or Dark Lord. They travel together and sometimes they fight among themselves and sometimes they come closer to one another. About the only major “action” is a short-lived flood wave that changes things around a bit. But even that is mostly an opportunity for further character development rather than a big plot event.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsWhat keeps the reader going is the interpersonal action. Will the Rain Wild group, all of whom were supposed to be killed when born marked, continue to accept their society’s old rules and its perception of themselves? Or will they modify them or create their own society?   Will characters cling to their old selves or move into the new selves slowly being molded by this journey (in both a literal and metaphorical sense)?  Will they cling to old relationships or find new ones?  Old mores or new ones?  Old biases or new tolerances?

Oh, there are plot questions that create suspense and tension throughout:  who is the “mole” in the group spreading dissension, will anyone give into greed and carve out pieces of dragons to sell, will they ever find the mythical city, will the dragons every become true dragons, what are these odd physical changes in the dragon keepers, and so on. But they pale beside the character issues.

Beyond character, Hobb shows her usual mastery of language here, whether it be dialogue or description. She offers up her usual themes: clash of culture, prejudice, the clash between change and tradition, the clash between the individual and the group and does so smoothly and subtly and thoughtfully.

So what the reading experience comes down to is whether you’re the reader who needs things “to happen,” or if reading about people (even if the people are sometimes dragons or ships) is enough for you. To be honest, I did enjoy Hobb’s Farseer and Liveship books more, with their more traditional blend of action and character. But while I found Soldier’s Son overly slow and free of action, I was quite drawn into the character world of the Rain Wild Chronicles and didn’t feel the need for more things to happen, except at the very end. The ending seems a bit abrupt and anticlimactic, with a bit of deus ex machina to it. But that was a minor complaint and in some ways, the ending, though disappointing, was quite appropriate to what had come before. Overall, I was happy to drift down the river and spend some time with these characters and I suspect anyone who enjoys these sort of character-driven, “quiet” stories will as well. Happily recommended.

THE FARSEER SAGA — (1995-2013) Words Like Coins is a short e-story published in 2012. The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince is a related prequel novella published in 2013. Publisher: Young Fitz is the bastard son of the noble Prince Chivalry, raised in the shadow of the royal court by his father’s gruff stableman. He is treated like an outcast by all the royalty except the devious King Shrewd, who has him secretly tutored in the arts of the assassin. For in Fitz’s blood runs the magic Skill — and the darker knowledge of a child raised with the stable hounds and rejected by his family. As barbarous raiders ravage the coasts, Fitz is  growing to manhood. Soon he will face his first dangerous, soul-shattering mission. And though some regard him as a threat to the throne, he may just be the key to the survival of the kingdom.

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LIVESHIP TRADERS –(1998-2000) Bingtown is a hub of exotic trade and home to a merchant nobility famed for its liveships — rare vessels carved from wizardwood, which ripens magically into sentient awareness. The fortunes of one of Bingtown’s oldest families rest on the newly awakened liveship Vivacia. For Althea Vestrit, the ship is her rightful legacy unjustly denied her — a legacy she will risk anything to reclaim. For Althea’s young nephew Wintrow, wrenched from his religious studies and forced to serve aboard ship, Vivacia is a life sentence. But the fate of the Vestrit family — and the ship — may ultimately lie in the hands of an outsider. The ruthless pirate Kennit seeks a way to seize power over all the denizens of the Pirate Isles… and the first step of his plan requires him to capture his own liveship and bend it to his will…

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TAWNY MAN — (2001-2003) For fifteen years FitzChivalry Farseer has lived in self-imposed exile, assumed to be dead by almost all who once cared about him. But that is about to change when destiny seeks him once again. Prince Dutiful, the young heir to the Farseer throne, has vanished and FitzChivalry, possessed of magical skills both royal and profane, is the only one who can retrieve him in time for his betrothal ceremony — thus sparing the Six Duchies profound political embarrassment… or worse. But even Fitz does not suspect the web of treachery that awaits him or how his loyalties to his Queen, his partner, and those who share his magic will be tested to The breaking point.

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THE RAIN WILDS CHRONICLES — (2010-2012) Publisher: Guided by the great blue dragon Tintaglia, they came from the sea: a Tangle of serpents fighting their way up the Rain Wilds River, the first to make the perilous journey to the cocooning grounds in generations. Many have died along the way. With its acid waters and impenetrable forest, it is a hard place for any to survive. People are changed by the Rain Wilds, subtly or otherwise. One such is Thymara. Born with black claws and other aberrations, she should have been exposed at birth. But her father saved her and her mother has never forgiven him. Like everyone else, Thymara is fascinated by the return of dragons: it is as if they symbolise the return of hope to their war-torn world. Leftrin, captain of the liveship Tarman, also has an interest in the hatching; as does Bingtown newlywed, Alise Finbok, who has made it her life’s work to study all there is to know of dragons. But the creatures which emerge from the cocoons are a travesty of the powerful, shining dragons of old. Stunted and deformed, they cannot fly; some seem witless and bestial. Soon, they become a danger and a burden to the Rain Wilders: something must be done. The dragons claim an ancestral memory of a fabled Elderling city far upriver: perhaps there the dragons will find their true home. But Kelsingra appears on no maps and they cannot get there on their own: a band of dragon keepers, hunters and chroniclers must attend them. To be a dragon keeper is a dangerous job: their charges are vicious and unpredictable, and there are many unknown perils on the journey to a city which may not even exist…

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FITZ AND THE FOOL — (2014- ) Publisher: FitzChivalry — royal bastard and former king’s assassin — has left his life of intrigue behind. As far as the rest of the world knows, FitzChivalry Farseer is dead and buried. Masquerading as Tom Badgerlock, Fitz is now married to his childhood sweetheart, Molly, and leading the quiet life of a country squire. Though Fitz is haunted by the disappearance of the Fool, who did so much to shape Fitz into the man he has become, such private hurts are put aside in the business of daily life, at least until the appearance of menacing, pale-skinned strangers casts a sinister shadow over Fitz’s past… and his future. Now, to protect his new life, the former assassin must once again take up his old one….

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsFool's Quest: Book II of the Fitz and the Fool trilogy     Fitz and The Fool: Coloring Book Paperback – May 10, 2018 by Robin Hobb (Author), Manuel Preitano (Illustrator)


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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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