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.

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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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