(Interested readers may like to note that I’ve also got (mostly spoiler-free) reviews up of the nine preceding Realm of Elderlings novels, indexed here.)
Dragon Keeper is the first novel in the Rain Wild Chronicles series. However, as it follows the events of The Farseer Trilogy, The Liveship Traders and The Tawny Man, it is essentially the tenth novel of the combined Realm of Elderlings cycle. In particular, it follows quite directly on from the Liveship trilogy, though recurring characters are limited to cameo roles.
After twelve novels in a cycle, a certain amount of selection has inevitably occurred. It is unlikely many people will read this without being a dedicated Hobb fan to begin with – although in fact (and perhaps the later installments of this quartet will change this) this seems a pretty good belated starting place, in terms of plot if not perhaps in terms of style. The events of the previous trilogies have, as it were, created a blank canvass – one that is now actually rather closer to traditional fantasy than when the cycle began.
The key, however, is not the plot, but the approach. Hobb’s way of writing has changed over the course of the twelve novels, becoming more and more reflective, more and more observational, more and more determined to use the trappings of the fantasy genre to enable an examination of interpersonal universals. This, in the end, is both the virtue and the vice of this novel.
Farseer was a trilogy all about growing up, a trilogy about sons and their fathers; Tawny Man was all about having grown up, a trilogy about fathers and their sons. Liveships, on the other hand, with its large cast, had an appropriately broad focus – but perhaps it can be roughly said to be a story about the subjugation of women. It was about families, and family-like structures, and social rules that marginalised women (and some men), and it was about how women (and men who failed to live up to the expectations had of men) could accomodate, accept, rebel against, negotiate with and circumvent those rules. The first weakness of Dragon Keeper unfortunately is that we seem to come back to old ground, and not, as in the Tawny Man, by approaching the same field from a new direction. Instead, Dragon Keeper is content to address the same questions as Liveships, albeit perhaps now with a different emphasis – domestic abuse, particularly of an emotional kind, comes to the fore (not that it was absent in Liveships, of course!), and the emphasis is less on institutions themselves and more on those marginalised by those institutions.
There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with addressing these topics in a fantasy novel – Liveships did it very well. Nor is there necessarily anything inherently wrong with returning to those themes a second time. The weakness of Dragon Keeper is that its psychology, following the same lines as Liveships, appears both more verbose and less insightful. The complex web of psychological cause and effect that drove tragedy in Liveships is reduced to a matter of some people just being narcissists and not very nice to be around. It’s frankly not all that appealing. On the one hand, the author and her characters appear to attribute such wonderfulness and ‘magical’ power to the abusive parties, wonderfulness even in their ability to abuse, that they seem almost to be superhuman: it’s hard to imagine how anybody ordinary and petty could be abusive, in this book; abusiveness is almost something worthy of worship, it seems. On a second hand, and relatedly, it’s surprisingly difficult to sympathise with some of these marginalised characters. So much of what happens to them is their own fault, is brought on directly by being ridiculously foolish or narcissistic themselves, that it’s hard to really side with them entirely when we see the consequences. And that’s fair enough I suppose, in theory – except that we also don’t really get to see why they’re foolish and/or narcissistic. We’re left with neither a plain account of victimisation nor a more contentious account of how some victims bring their victimhood upon themselves. Liveships handled this much better, in how it showed how one tragedy, one slight, one insult, one disaster, led on to the next, victims often either entrenching themselves in victimhood or becoming abusers in their own right; Dragon Keeper leaves us puzzling over a snapshot of ultimately unmotivated unhappiness.
Now, part of this is a problem to do with publishing. Dragon Keeper was not written as a novel, but as the first part of a novel, which then became the first part of the first novel in a duology, and was then split out into a novel in its own right. It ends not even with a cliffhanger, but with a cessation – a cessation, indeed, just as the plot is beginning to get going. As a result, it’s even harder to judge in its own right than the first installment of a series usually is; perhaps both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters will have much about them explained in the second half of this story, and these concerns will flood away. It’s hard to judge a set-up when we haven’t yet heard the punchline. And that’s a broader problem with the splitting in two of the novel: even more than normal in the first part of a series, what we have here is purely the set-up, purely the introduction of the characters and their situation.
Taken in its own right, however, this is the second big weakness of the book. Deprived of the excitement of a climax, all we have is unsatisfying and extremely prolonged anticipation; deprived of the sense of a conclusion, all we have is a congeries of threads, lying aside one another with, as yet, no clear picture of how they are to join, what the finished tapestry is meant to look like. This is of course a problem always experienced in the middle of a book: but this time we’re invited to put the story down halfway through, and wait until we buy the second installment, and that added time allows the reader’s impression of the half-finished work to sour. It’s a problem also often seen in long, epic fantasy series – both The Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire have provoked considerable frustration over the way they have placed their readers in the unsatisfying middle portion of a story for years, even decades, on end. Dragon Keeper has an advantage on these series, in that the pressure for a resolution is lesser, thanks to the smaller scale and scope of Hobb’s story, but it also has disadvantages: it has even less of a satisfying arc structure as a standalone novel, and it also has less actual incident than anything outside of Crossroads of Twilight. The entire plot could have been gotten through in three or four chapters, if the author had wished. Now, this isn’t Crossroads of Twilight – the wordcount is dedicated primarily to psychological analysis, rather than descriptions of scenery and repetitive conversations, and it doesn’t feel particularly bloated in the moment of reading. But there is a strangely protracted feel to it as a whole, that I didn’t feel was fully justified by how well we got to know the characters, or how complicated those characters are.
And yet I don’t want it to seem as though Hobb has gone off the rails here. I can see what she is doing, and although it’s not always what I’d like her to be doing, she is doing it well. Her writing is as good as ever, if not better, and she’s able to create vivid characters and compelling situations and realistic psychologies. In a way it’s particularly impressive just how readable I found the book, given that I’m interested in perhaps only one character in the novel, and that very little of interest actually happens: Hobb has the magical knack of bringing her readers to invest in her world (though it should be said, sadly, that her world and its revelation are probably less interesting here than ever before), her characters, her plots, even without the honey that authors usually need to dole out; I may have found the novel frustrating, occasionally even a little tiresome, but I didn’t find it dull, and I never imagined for a second putting it aside. I’ve also quickly gone out and bought the sequel.
Ultimately, what Hobb accomplishes in this novel, even more than in her earlier work, is a fusion of realistic, relatable character drama (half soap opera, half literary character portrait) with a fantasy setting, complete with quests and dragons and magic and mediaeval (or in this case early modern) ornamentation. The sugary fantasy material makes the sometimes dry psychological material go down more easily, while the portrait painting adds both prestige and depth to the fantasy. For those who can tolerate the slow, old-fashioned pace (and Hobb’s earlier books, with the exception perhaps of Golden Fool, were action-packed by comparison), it remains a potent mixture – although I do think that this time she may just have strayed a little far in the direction of dry.
Adrenaline: 3/5. The pace is slow: very slow. But it is a deliberate pace, and although little happens there is ample supply of premonition and foreboding to pull the reader through.
Emotion: 3/5. While the characters may generally not be all that sympathetic, they are vivid, rounded, and enmeshed in emotive situations. Not much happens, but the status quo as described is sufficiently painful to evoke some emotion by itself.
Thought: 3/5. Psychological analysis and a fairly unusual plot keep the brain engaged, although both dimensions seem a little too simplistic in execution.
Beauty: 3/5. As is usually the case with Hobb, her prose is unremarkable, and the flashes of beautiful imagery are balanced by her willingness to describe the horrific and the ugly.
Craft: 4/5. Although, as you can probably tell, I’m a little underwhelmed by this book, I do think that it’s as well written a book as Hobb has produced. The prose and the plotting and the characterisation all seem more deliberate and controlled (though we can deduce that word-count is still something the author has difficulties mastering…)
Endearingness: 2/5. Hard to imagine giving this score to a Hobb novel, since normally she’s one of my favourite writers. And it’s not that there’s anything actively repulsive about the book. But, whether its the choice of characters, or the half-finished nature, or the (valuable and respectable but not overly fun) themes, or the relative lack of action, but… I just didn’t love it. Perhaps that will change in hindsight, once I see how this fits into the whole – there have been quite a few half-books by Hobb I haven’t loved, and quite a few characters who have seemed unsympathetic at first, and I’m more than willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. But right now, I didn’t instinctively like this book very much.
Originality: 3/5. Hobb’s reputation is so great, and her world so well-established, that she’s outgrown the need for the more formulaic plots of her early novels; and so, if one were to write down the characters of this novel and the plot they limn, it would be a fairly distinctive shape. On the other hand, her world has become more conventional, and there seems less interest, at least in this novel, in exploring its unusual elements. So average, on average.
Overall: 5/7. GOOD. Dragon Keeper is probably a step down in quality from Hobb’s best work, and I certainly think it will be less accessible to average epic fantasy fans. But for what it is, it’s actually quite good – and certainly good enough not to discourage me from continuing on to the next volume.
P.s. On going into a shop to physically buy the next installment because I didn’t want to wait for a postal delivery, I discovered that Hobb’s earlier books, such as the Farseer novels, now have yet another edition, and it’s got yet another stunning cover. How come there are so many terrible fantasy novel covers, when Hobb’s able to get cover after cover, in totally different styles, all wonderful? Here are the UK editions of Assassin’s Apprentice I know about:
John Howe’s beautiful romanticist painting and almost tactile framing, complete with a potent scent of his famous Tolkien paintings.
A totally different but equally beautiful, simplistic, symbolic approach from Jackie Morris. The thumbnail doesn’t do justice to the glossy silver-gilt beauty of it in real life – it’s a style that reminds me strongly both of mediaeval painting (the Wilton Diptych, for instance) and of late-19th/early-20th ‘childlike’ fantasy illustrations.
I don’t know who made this one, and to be honest I wouldn’t put it at quite the level of the first two, but it’s still really attractive. It’s striking, simple, pretty, and conveys something of the style of the novel, while still being perhaps more fashionable in style than the above works.
And then because those weren’t enough, I also noticed this one – it’s a hardback edition, with a totally different, almost modernist style.
On the other hand, her American covers are just ghastly, so maybe there is some justice after all.