Saturday, May 12, 2012

City of Dragons - Robin Hobb

Robin Hobb is one of those Fantasy authors I started reading when I had just started to explore the genre. The Farseer trilogy had just been translated in Dutch back then and Hobb was (and sill is) quite popular over here. I have read everything she has published in the mean time and dug up most of her novels written under the name Megan Lindholm as well. The Realm of the Elderlings remains her best know creation though, and Hobb is returning to it with the second set of two books in the Rain Wild Chronicles. It has happened a number of times that Hobb's work has appeared in Dutch translation before it came out in English. City of Dragons was published in September 2011 and Blood of Dragons, which will not appear in English until early 2013, followed in December. I understand that there are minor textual differences between the English and the Dutch edition because of later changes to the English manuscript. It still makes you wonder why on earth the US and UK publishers are sitting on those books for that long. Despite being sorely tempted to just get the translation, I waited for the English hardcover. I guess we'll have to see if I can hold out another nine months for Blood of Dragons.

City of Dragons picks up our desperate group of dragon keepers a few months after the end of Dragon Haven. They have found their promised land, the Elderling city of Kelsingra, but are cut off from it by the Rain Wilds river, swollen with the winter rains. Poorly equipped and barely able to feed the dragons, their only real chance of survival is for their ship the Tarman to return to Carrick and claim their reward. In the Rain Wild cities and Bingtown in the mean time, things remain unsettled. The aging and heirless Duke of Chalced is still determined to find the dragon parts he thinks he needs to prolong his life. Blackmail, torture, deceit and murder are acceptable means in his opinion. When rumors of the discovery of an unexplored Elderling city reach the civilized world, greed enters into the mix as well. The dragons and their keepers are going to change the world forever.

The previous two books in this (sub) series, Dragon Keeper and Dragon Haven, where originally one long novel that got so big the publisher decided to split the novel in two. Back then I felt the way they went about that didn't really do those books any favours. The rewriting made it even longer, probably more so than the story justified. With City of Dragons and Blood of Dragons a similar decision has been made. I get the feeling the decision to split the novel in two was made a bit earlier on though. The finale of this first book feels a bit less forced, as if Hobb knew early on what she was writing towards in terms of the overarching conflict the book covers, rather than looking for a good place to split the novel. That being said, the ending does involve a number of cliffhangers and some of the characters that are the focus of much of the book seem to be much less present later on in the novel. With a more than eight months still to go before the second part is available, the more impatient reader may want to put this book away for a bit.

Hobb mostly works with the cast she established in the first two volumes of the Rain Wild Chronicles. She uses multiple points of view to describe scenes in Bingtown, the Rain Wilds, Kelsingra and Chalced. I still marginally favour the first person point of view Hobb used in the Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies but I guess that is a matter of taste. For the story Hobb is trying to tell, multiple points of view are certainly necessary. It is becoming as politically complex as the Liveship Traders trilogy. The return of the dragons have destabilized the communities of the Rain Wilds and Bingtown. It is a development that has a human component as well of course. After gaining independence from Jamalia, Bingtown will now have to establish itself as a nation. It is a time of opportunity, a development that brings in lots of new people who do not share the history of hard work and countess setbacks on the Cursed Shore. There are social tensions everywhere in this book. Slavery, sexism and discrimination are major themes in the novel which makes it a fascinating read.

As usual, Hobb pays a lot of attention to her characters. They are detailed, three dimensional, each with a clear motivation, their own hopes, fears and challenges. Not all of them are equally likable of course and I felt that especially in the less sympathetic characters, Hobb tended to overemphasize their negative traits a bit. Hest in particular is set up to be the bad guy, with elaborate plans that will make life difficult for his wife Alise and his former lover Sedric that are very unlikely to go anywhere. I absolutely loved Malta's determination in this novel though, and Leftrin's efforts to keep from being overwhelmed by all the responsibility he feels towards his crew, the expedition, Alise and his ship. Leftrin is almost the embodiment of everything that is going on in the society he is part of. Old customs and certainties being eroded by the force of all these new developments.

The dragons themselves receive their share of attention too of course. They are still a bunch of arrogant creatures. Hobb does well making them at them interesting characters and completely inhuman at the same time. The conflict between their ancestral memories of what they should be and how they once were treated and the bleak reality of their situation. Stunted in their growth by the poor conditions in which they hatched and the minimal care they have received since, life is a struggle for them and it rankles. Sintara in particular feels she ought to be a queen of the sky as well as the muddy land around the river and it makes her decidedly unpleasant. Especially since her keeper Thymara is much more occupied with her own personal problems. The dynamic between these two is another strong feat of characterization in the novel. The way their relationship will develop is something for the next book I suppose. Both the absence of Tintaglia and Thymara's distractions pose challenges to their relationship. Neither seems to fully realize how much they need each other yet. A definite note of tragedy in the novel. But then, Hobb has always been a writer who lets her characters suffer.

As you may have gathered, I enjoyed reading this novel a lot. Despite the fact that it is not a complete story, City of Dragons worked very well for me on several levels. It is Hobb like the fans will probably like to see her. It is not surprising in terms of settings of themes but very well told, with Hobb's characteristic attention to detail and character. Some readers will think Hobb is taking her time putting the pieces in place for the finale of the series. For me, that was one of the aspects I enjoyed most. Hobb explores the tensions in society in detail without compromising on the development of her characters and that is something not all fantasy manages as effortlessly as this novel does.  I think I will ignore the Dutch translation and wait for the English edition of Blood of Dragons but Hobb certainly hasn't made it easy for me.

Book Details
Title: City of Dragons
Author: Robin Hobb
Publisher: Voyager
Pages: 425
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-00-727380-5
First published: 2012

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