For the first time in many years, dragons are returning to the Rain Wilds. The juvenile dragons, who have the form of sea serpents, must migrate upriver where, helped by humans, they will cocoon themselves and emerge as dragons capable of flight and with the ability to breathe poison vapors on their foes. They’ll join Tintaglia, the only known living dragon, to help protect the Rain Wild area and the nearby Trader towns from Chalcedean attacks.
But something’s gone wrong. The juveniles were too old for their transformation, or perhaps they didn’t stay cocooned long enough. But the dragons that emerge are clumsy, crippled things that cannot fly or hunt for themselves. Many die soon, and those that remain are embittered and sickly. The Rain Wilders are soon resentful at having to provide for dragons that do nothing, and the lone healthy dragon, Tintaglia, has abandoned the new dragons. A plan is made to migrate the new dragons upriver where a legendary city built for dragons may still exist. Accompanying the dragons are a number of humans designated to be dragon keepers. Among them are Thymara, a young girl whose deformities caused by the Rain Wilds’ harsh environment have made her an outcast from her people, and Alise, a woman who’s studied dragons all her life and uses the migration as a reason to flee her loveless marriage.
Dragon Keeper is the first in a series by fantasy author Robin Hobb, and she does a very good job of setting up this somewhat complex world. Her portrayal of the dragons is particularly interesting: they are not beasts, nor are their thoughts and emotions those of humans. They’re superior beings who can communicate with some (not all) humans through telepathy, and they’re also gifted (or perhaps cursed) with ancestral memories. So these earthbound dragons who are forced to subsist on whatever food humans can provide them are tormented my memories of flight, of hunting their own food, of the perhaps mythical city of Kelsingra where dragons and humans once lived harmoniously.
Hobb does an equally good job on the two principal human characters, who come from very different societies within this world. Thymara comes from the Rain Wild, a swampy land where the river water is acidic and the people live in trees as hunters and gatherers. Alise comes from the prosperous (now that the war with the Chalcedeans is over) trader towns. Both women are unhappy with their situations, and the dragon migration quest, though expected to be doomed, offers them the chance of escape.
Which leads us to the main problem with Dragon Keeper. A friend of mine says he dislikes fantasy novels because they are “all about walking somewhere.” He wouldn’t have that issue with Dragon Keeper; the dragons’ journey is barely under way when the book ends. This means that for a couple hundred pages we’ve had little else but world-building and character development – and while I’m all in favor of those, it makes the second half of the book a bit wearying as the reader waits for something to happen. Hobb could take a page from George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series – now there’s a man who knows how to set up complex worlds and interesting characters, and stuff happens (boy, does it!).
My only other quibble with the book is a revelation about the relationship between two characters. Sharp-eyed readers will spot it quickly, but Hobb muddies the waters a bit by having one character’s thoughts on the relationship lead the reader away from its real nature for far too long. It feels forced, and not in keeping with the rest of the book’s strong characterization.
Still, Hobb has done an admirable job setting up her world’s complex and intriguing mythology (she’s also put a bit of a plot zinger into a seemingly unrelated series of events in the story). And she’s engaged me in her world and characters enough to make me seek out the next in the series when it hits the shelves, and find out what happens to the dragons and their keepers.