Thursday, March 18, 2010

Dragon Haven - Robin Hobb

And finally the second part of Hobb's Rain Wilds Chronicles is here. In the US the two parts of what is really one long novel are published with only a few months in between. I was impatient and got the UK version of the first book Dragon Keeper July. I guess that is what you get for not being able to wait. I'm going to have to be content with getting the better UK cover art in return. Although Hobb tried to find a natural break in the story to split the book, I felt Dragon Keeper ended quite abruptly. It left me wanting to read on. My feelings about Dragon Haven are not that different, it's a satisfying read but I do get the feeling Hobb is not quite finished with this setting.

The dragons and their keepers, accompanied by the liveship river barge Tarman, are slowly making their way up the Rain Wilds river in search of the legendary city of Kelsingra. Far away from civilized society the keepers and their company have only themselves to rely on. After a life in the margins of the major Rain Wilds settlement of Trehaug many are ready to go out and create their own rules. Restrictions imposed on them in the Rain Wilds are not that easy to shake however. The keepers also have to try and care for and bond their dragons as best they can and it is becoming increasingly clear that neither the dragons nor the keepers are quite up to the task.

More unrest is caused by the ever present temptation to harvest dragon parts and return to the civilized world to sell them at an enormous profit. To make matters even more complicated the already dangerous Rain Wilds environment shows them the risks of this ill-prepared expedition into uncharted territory. After one of the frequent quakes a wave of highly acidic water literally washes over the expedition scattering them and their provisions. When the water calms the survivors are left to gather what little remains to them and press on. Turning back is not an option for any of the members.

Dragon Keeper clearly showed us the restrictions Bingtown and Rain Wilds society imposed on the various members of the expedition and how each of them is struggling under the burden.The further they get away from any kind of authority, the greater the temptation becomes to leave their past behind. This process of slowly realizing nobody is going to tell you what to do any more is very well done in the book. The generally young keepers push beyond the boundaries of what used to be acceptable and then find out that some rules do actually make sense.

On board the Liveship that accompanies the expedition conditions are perhaps even more complicated. The more adult crowd on board harbours a good many secrets and slowly but surely they are all coming to light. It's quite a feat that Hobb manages to keep track of who is keeping what hidden form who and what the others have heard or guessed about the situation. With all these characters mostly confined to each other's company the relationships between them form a complex tangle of love, anger, betrayal, distrust and forgiveness. The emphasis is on Alise, Sedric and Leftrin. At times I felt Sedric's reaction to the realization he's been sent away by his lover and Alise's husband Hest a bit too much. We get to see Hest as a very cruel and dominant person from both Alise's and Sedric's point of view. The first book, in which he actually appears, did nothing to convince us this image isn't deserved but without any insight in what is going on in his mind it is one way traffic. Both of them make decisions regarding their relationship to him but neither actually has to face him which made it feel like plain running away to me, no matter how noble the cause they've attached themselves to.

In one review I read of Dragon Keeper, the reviewer considered it only readable for the part of the population endowed with ovaries (or something to that effect). A comment that aimed at the lack of battles and other action scenes. If you consider this a problem then Dragon Haven is not going to be an improvement. Hobb's books are generally very much character driven and this one is no exception. The characters have quite a few issues among them and Hobb spends quite a bit of the book working through those. Personally I enjoyed the way we get to see the various characters change and how it affects the other members of the expedition. This is clearly not something on which everybody is going to agree with me.

Originally these two volumes were intended to be one large novel. After reading both parts I think I would have preferred that option. I enjoyed both books a lot but I can't entirely shake the impression that it didn't take eleven hundred pages to tell this story. They say that if an author wants to write a bigger book a good way to do it is add a character. Did Hobb start out with a point of view too many? These books as well the Liveship Traders trilogy, all books with multiple points of view, have the feeling of a story that was not meant to be quite so large. Maybe Hobb is better at keeping the story focused when writing a first person point of view.

An other factor that contributed to this feeling that perhaps these books are a bit longer than they need be, is the ending of the story. Without giving the end away, story lines are wrapped up, conclusions reached, it does end at a natural point to end the book but it definitely leaves possibilities for sequels. In a way it is giving the reader the feeling the journey has only just begun. I have no idea what Hobb will be working on once the work on the announced Hobb/Lindholm short fiction collection is done but I get the distinct feeling Hobb isn't done with the Realm of the Elderlings yet.

I seem to marginally prefer the Robin Hobb books in which she employs the first person perspective. I've seen some pretty negative reviews of her Soldier Son trilogy. I thought this switch to another main character and another world was refreshing. I must admit her subsequent return to the Realm of the Elderlings makes for some quality reading though. Dragon Haven is an engrossing story, both from the perspective of the dragons and their influence (a recurring theme in all the Eldering books) on the world as well as on the level of the human characters and their personal journeys. It's an absolute must read for Hobb fans.

Book Details
Title: Dragon Haven
Author: Robin Hobb
Publisher: Voyager
Pages: 570
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-00-733581-7
First published: 2010

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