Robin Hobb’s Dragon Keeper is a welcome return to the world of the LIVESHIP TRADERS trilogy (fair warning: if you haven’t read that series, there may be a few spoilers here). Specifically, it is set in the Rain Wilds with the emergence of the serpents/dragons from their casings, an event enthusiastically anticipated by all who long to see these beautiful, powerful creatures soaring through the skies once more.
Often in Robin Hobb’s fiction, though, the most eagerly awaited events turn into the most disappointing ones, and such is the case here as the dragons that emerge are stunted or malformed — all physically and some mentally. Soon, the Rain Wilders realize their bargain with the queen dragon Tintaglia — they would care for the dragons and she and the new dragons would protect them from foreign threat Chalcedea — isn’t such a great deal. The humans want to rid themselves of the dragons, the dragons don’t want to feel like animals tended by humans, and so a new bargain is struck: the Rain Wilders will send human assistants to help the dragons seek out the long-lost Elderling city of Kelsingra, which lies deep in the ancestral memories of most of the dragons.
The story shifts focus among several characters. Thymara is a 16 year old, heavily marked (she has lizard-like claws, for instance) Rain Wilder girl, whose father, ignoring the usual Rain Wilder rules, refused to abandon his baby daughter to death in the forest (it’s no coincidence that most of the volunteers on the journey are such heavily-marked and shunned Rain Wilders).
Alise, meanwhile, is a Bingtown Trader who had seemed well on her way to early spinsterhood and so had taken up dragon studies as the usual “spinsterish quirky habit.” Instead, she finds herself in a marriage of convenience to Hest, an upstanding and wealthy trader husband who needs a wife so he can play his role as a socially acceptable heterosexual. Except for the homosexual part, he’s upfront with her about the convenience aspect of the marriage and bribes her with offers to pay for her studies. She willfully accepts only to find out she’s less happy than she’d expected. This trip is her way of finding a “last adventure” in her so-far lonely, loveless, and insular life.
Sintara is one of the stunted dragons — at the same time one of the most bitter and most haughty. A few semi-major characters include Leftrin, captain of the old Liveship escorting the journey upriver; Sedric, Hest’s secretary and lover whose been sent along as Alise’s chaperon as petty punishment; and Tats, a tattooed former slave who has been friends with Thymara but perhaps would like more.
As usual, Robin Hobb’s strength is characterization and set-up, though it’s possible some might call those weaknesses as well in this book, as the actual journey upriver doesn’t even start until three-quarters of the way in. Before then we get a lot of, well, characterization and set-up: Thymara’s condition, her relationships with her father (good), mother (bad), Tats (good) and the Rain Wilder community (bad), and how she ends up on this journey. Alise’s condition, her relationships with her parents (bad), Sedric (good), and Hest (bad then good then bad) and how she ends up on this journey. Sedric’s condition, his relationship with Alise (good) and Hest (good then bad), and how he ends up on this journey. Sintara’s condition (stunted, only partial ancestral memories) and her relationships with the other dragons (mostly cranky) and the humans (bad). And so on.
The most exciting conflicts that take place are mostly domestic spats between parents-children, lovers, or fellow dragons. If you’re looking for battles, jaunty con games, dark lords, tense chess-like face-offs, this is not the book for you. Nor is it the book for you if you want a fully resolved story, since just as the journey begins (well, about 100 pages afterward), the book ends.
In other words, really what the reader has in Dragon Keeper is a very, very big introduction to book two, Dragon Haven. Personally, I found the characters (including the dragons) and the various situations interesting enough in their own right that I felt no need for more “excitement.” These are fully fleshed out characters who change and grow (for the most part) in believable fashion as the book goes on. Their stories and interactions, rather than the Kelsingra quest, is what drives the reader on and does so quite handily without resort to more explosive plot events. The pace is slow but more than simply tolerable — the book and its characters unfold rather than rush by. If you know Robin Hobb, I’d say it falls between the LIVESHIP TRADERS and FARSEER books on the one hand, which were richly characterized and had the more typical plot spikes and her SOLDIER SON series on the other, which was richly characterized but glacially slow (this is much closer to the former than the latter though). Dragon Keeper also has some more overt humor in it via regularly interspersed short “conversations” between two keepers of the messenger birds who attach their own pithy commentary to official communications — a nice addition.
Similar to the SOLDIER SON series, Robin Hobb is working with some serious themes, especially the idea of the disenfranchised. We have Rain Wilders shunned by their community for their heavy disfigurations/markings, a character shunned due to his former slave status and his mother’s criminal past, a character shunned for her lack of good looks and willingness to play the feminine role, characters fearful of being shunned due to their sexuality, and of course the dragons themselves — far from the “ideal” creatures hoped for. This and the other themes are handled with Robin Hobb’s usual sophistication. Characters of a particular group, for instance, aren’t portrayed as monolithic, either in their group role (all homosexuals are like X) or in their response to their disenfranchisement.
Beyond the fact that the book has strong and mostly compelling characters, a pleasant strolling pace, and deals thoughtfully with serious topics, it’s hard to critique a story that is mostly introduction; we’ll have to wait for Dragon Haven to determine just how good the Dragon story is. But Dragon Keeper is certainly a worthy beginning and at this point well deserving of a recommendation.