After writing thee books in a different setting Hobb returns to the Realm of the Elderings in Dragon Keeper, book one of the Rain Wilds Chronicles. The book connects to the Liveship Traders trilogy mostly but events in the other two trilogies set in this world play a part in the story as well. She intended this book to be a single volume but the first draft was considered too lengthy so the decision was made to spit the book. Reviewing this book is not going to be easy. We only get half the story, Hobb leaves us with something of a cliffhanger. This book weighs in at 553 pages, I guess it would have been enormous if they had published the whole story at once (even if we take the rewriting to make it two books into account) but I for one wouldn't have minded reading on after this first serving.
The book opens some time after the ending of Ship of Destiny. The sea serpents have reached their cocooning grounds in the Rain Wilds and are ready to begin the transformation to dragons. They are in poor condition though, malnourished and too old to survive the process. They have also arrived to late in the season to be ready to emerge the next spring. The dragon Tintaglia is worried and her fears turn out to be justified when the next summer the young Dragons emerge. They are small, unhealthy and not fully formed. Many die quickly. In true dragon spirit Tintaglia abandons the creatures who are in her opinion not fit to live.
Tintaglia leaves the Trades with the problem on deciding what to do next. They made a bargain with Tintaglia, one that forces them to take care of the creature. Several years later less than twenty of the creatures remain. They have become restless and a heavy burden on the Rain Wild community. Hidden agenda's and manipulation abound as a relocation is proposed. An expedition mounted to find a lost city in the Rain Wilds, one that the dragons remember vaguely in their ancestral memories. An unlikely collection of people gathers to take part in this ill advised expedition and guide the dragons to their destination.
Like the Liveship Traders books Hobb uses a multiple point of view, third person narrative for this story. That may well be the reason that the book turned out as long as it did, there are quite a few point of views in this book. There's river barge captain Leftrin, the dragon Sintara, the heavily Rain Wilds marked Thymara, the Trader's daughter and dragon scholar Alise and her chaperone Sedric. All with their own secrets and desires. Set in the conservative and in some ways repressive Trader milieu, Hobb managed to create a cast with enough potential for drama to fill a Jane Austin novel. Pride and Prejudice with Dragons. She may be on to something here.
Much of the novel deals with the restrictions in society imposes on their relationship. Themes such as marriage of convenience, suppressed homosexuality and taboos regarding the physical disfigurements causes by the Rain Wilds environment are strong themes in the books. Like in the Liveship Traders books it looks like the dragons are a catalyst for social change rather than the focus of the book. I always liked the way Hobb handles the fantastic elements in her books. Carefully dosed they never overshadow the character development in the books. Her well drawn characters are the strength of Hobb's writing. Dragons are a fantasy cliché, a popular theme that needs to be handled carefully the novel stand out. They are much more present in this book than the the Liveship Traders trilogy but not so much so that the book turns into a Pern novel (can't help it, I don't like those).
There is an awful lot of back story for this book. I suppose you'd understand the story well enough without having read the previous volumes but you'd miss a lot of references to events in earlier books. I wouldn't recommend readers for starting here, the actions of the dragon Tintaglia wouldn't make much sense if you did, just to name one example. Hobb's Elderling books are best read in order of publication. For established Hobb readers this is a book that will most certainly create a hunger for more however. In Dragon Keeper Hobb begins to answer one of the major questions the reader is left with after Ship of Destiny and she does so in style. Yes, it is half a story and there will be quite a wait for the next part. I understand Voyager has Dragon Haven scheduled for a spring 2010 release. If you can stand the wait for the conclusion however, Dragon Keeper is a great read. I don't think they handled the splitting of the books in two parts very gracefully, it felt rather abrupt, but based on the story presented in Dragon Keeper things certainly look promising for Dragon Haven.
Title: Dragon Keeper
Author: Robin Hobb
First published: 2009