City of Dragons, by Robin Hobb

City of Dragons is #3 in the Rain Wild Chronicles, and #12 in the overall Realm of Elderlings cycle. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that, just as Dragon Keeper and Dragon Haven are essentially two parts of a single novel, City of Dragons is (the beginning of) a sequel to that novel, rather than a book organically conceived of as the third part of a tetralogy. So, just as the first two books are related more tightly than most books in a series, so too, in reverse, this third book is rather more loosely tied to the preceding two than would be expected. In particular, although this is a sequel set very shortly after the end of the second novel, and continued the storylines of the main protagonists, it also feels like much more than a continuation of their story, with more POVs introduced and a significantly broader scope, in terms not only of geography and plotlines but also thematic content.

I’m not going to say too much about this. There’s a limit to what you can say in book 3 of 4, let alone book 12 of (so far) 13, especially as I try to avoid spoilers as much as possible. Moreover, I was a bit stung last time around, ending up not writing a review for Dragon Haven, just because it was so much a continuation of Dragon Keeper that I wished I waited and written a joint review of both. Well, this time I’m not exactly doing that, but the plan is relatively short comments on each.

What I do have to say – and a big part of why I’m saying anything at all rather than waiting until I’ve made it through the concluding (as though anything in Hobb’s world is ever concluded!) volume – is that a lot of my concerns in the first two books were addressed here. In my opinion, City of Dragons is a substantially better book.

 

But a truly terrible cover. There are lots of reasons I'm glad I don't live in the US, but the terrible American covers for Robin Hobb novels are surprisingly high on the list.

But a truly terrible cover. There are lots of reasons I’m glad I don’t live in the US, but the terrible American covers for Robin Hobb novels are surprisingly high on the list.

I didn’t think so at first. I’m not going to give away too much, but it’s fair to say that one thing I’ve always disliked with Hobb is the way she likes to create blacker-than-black villains. The one exception to this is the Liveship Traders trilogy, where the central villain is nuanced and many-hued, and even with the more simplistic secondary villain you can sort of see their warped but fundamentally benign motivations underneath. This is a big part of why I feel Liveships is probably the most satisfying of her works as a story, even if she was not quite as technically proficient as in her later works, and even though it is perhaps less emotionally powerful due to the more remote and flawed characters. Well, at the beginning of City of Dragons, we’re right back in cheesy villain territory.

But that aside (and it’s a minor quibble in terms of how much of the book it actually affects), it’s a great book. If I had a complaint, it might be that it’s a bit too ambitious for its wordcount. It does feel sometimes as though it’s trying to keep hold of too many story threads at once – it never loses control exactly, but some bits end up getting too little attention (or perhaps too much – one storyline in particular I thought was entirely superfluous to the plot and should either have been dropped or else expanded to be more valuable in its own right). Indeed, it wasn’t until the opening, catch-up chapters of the final volume, Blood of Dragons, that I realised how many characters I’d been allowed to entirely forget about during the events of City of Dragons.

So why is it a success despite that? I think there are four key reasons. Firstly, the introduction of a returning POV from the Liveships novels is not only enjoyable in its own right, and a nostalgic pleasure, but also helps to tie the story in to the wider world-story with which the readers have become invested over so much time. Indeed, where the first two books in the series felt rather isolated, rather all-to-themselves – like a novella set in the world of the books, rather than a full part of the narrative in their own right – this one works well in using both its scope and its plot to make it feel a more integral part of the world. In particular, I, and no doubt other, fans adored a surreptitious but completely logical (indeed inevitable) callback all the way to a minor scene in the Farseer novels, written a decade and a half earlier, which really helped the novel demonstrate its place in this mythos. Secondly, the broader plot and scope accompany a broadening of theme – this not only gives more to offer to readers not fascinated by the concerns of the first two volumes, but also helps, in my opinion, all the themes stand out better, allowed to breathe and interplay rather than being hammered home. In all respects there is a much less claustrophobic feel to this book. Which ties into the third reason: while the first two novels, despite the dragons of the title, dealt with a pretty prosaic matter, this third novel is given freer reign and allowed to introduce far more tantalising and enthralling fantasy elements.

But the fourth reason is simple: it’s more exciting. The first two books were pretty much devoid of serious long-term peril: danger was short-term, while the long-term threats were more problems that might have danger attached perhaps at some point in the future. Here, at least for some characters, there’s real and present threat, in a coherent and lingering way, and that adds much more tension to the novel. It also gives us more of Hobb’s sparsely-used and underestimated, but very strong, action writing, and in particular it gives us perhaps the most… I’m not sure what the word is even. I’d say grimdark, but while it doesn’t have the hopelessness or cynicism I associate with that; perhaps brutal? I’m tempted to just sound a bit teenage and say hardcore, with the caveat that I’m talking about authors and character actions, not about eroticism. So, this book gives us perhaps the most pure hardcore brutal scene I’ve ever read – sure, I’ve read bloodier passages and passages that liked to trumpet their ‘maturity’ and sophisticated darkness, but this one just spits in their face and calls them out for the adolescent fantasies that those scenes mostly are. If Robin Hobb’s books were walking in a dark town at night and were suddenly accosted by some leering grimdark novels in a dark alleyway and told in horrible detail what would happen to them if they didn’t do exactly what they were told because look, they’ve got a knife, this would be the scene where they grinned slightly dementedly and reached behind themselves for something and then said “you call that a knife? … …THIS is a knife!”

I really can safely say I never expected to read that in an epic fantasy novel.

[And now a little bit that should really have been in the review of probably the second book rather than the third, but it still sort of applies: why is everybody gay here? Hobb regularly deals with sexuality, particularly female sexuality, and has touched on homosexual behaviour among men both in Liveships and in Tawny Man (I use the ungainly term ‘homosexual behaviour’ because, particularly in the former novels, it may not be accurate to consider the behaviour to be the result of an underlying homosexual orientation in this case). I have no problem with this – indeed, it very much fits into the general atmosphere and ideology of her books, and it also fits the themes in this tetralogy. In a story about exclusion and difference, it seems very natural to include homosexuality. But I do have a few problems with how it’s shown here:
a) at least 50% of the sizeable male cast is gay (compared to 1%-7% in reality)
b) nobody seems to feel that this is an unusual coincidence
c) gay characters are completely and unambiguously gay. Nobody’s (except briefly in flashback) unsure, ambivalent, curious, open-minded, complicated, changeable, or just plain bisexual. (in reality, bisexual men are a significant proportion of non-heterosexual men, and both bisexuals and homosexuals are themselves outnumbered by those who declare themselves uncertain or hard to define)
d) despite 50% of the male cast being gay, there’s still not a single lesbian (or otherwise non-completely-and-unambiguously-heterosexual woman), just as there hasn’t been in any of the previous books – fair enough by itself, of course (see note above about numbers), but coupled with the prominence of male homosexuality (for the third series running) it looks a little odd
e) several characters, both gay and non-gay, appear to have perfect ‘gaydar’. This despite the fact that this culture seems to lack a clear gay male stereotype to conform to, the gay characters are very different from one another, and the culture actively condemns homosexuality forcing gay men to hide their sexuality… yet somehow people can still tell instantly? Do they sparkle distinctively in twilight or something?

I don’t have a political problem with all this particularly, though I can see how somebody could (I suspect a male author writing about lesbian casts in this way would garner much more criticism). Rather, it just seems to be getting rather silly…]

 

Now that's a cover!

Now that’s a cover!

Anyway, that’s probably enough for me to have said this time out. I’ll be back in the near future with a review of the final installment…

For now, scores (with little in the way of commentary, maybe more next time):

Adrenaline: 4/5. Not an out-and-out thriller, but a good pace and some effective peril.

Emotion: 4/5. Mostly from only one plot thread, it should be said…

Thought: 4/5. Getting really interesting, with the way Hobb sets up competing interests against a background of the inevitability of change. There’s never really a ‘right answer’ or a ‘happy ending’.

Beauty: 3/5.

Craft: 4/5. I just feel the outright villains are a bit TOO crude, and a bit too convenient.

Endearingness: 4/5.

Originality: 5/5. At that stage in a series where everything is unique, as no other book is likely to deal with these situations, but Hobb goes above and beyond that in crafting a personal vision.

Overall: 6/7. VERY GOOD. Not only the best in this series so far, but one of the best novels by Hobb that I’ve read.

 

P.S. on covers: I wish publishers would let us have matching series. That is, I get why they want to reskin them every now and then, particularly series like this that come out over decades, but I wish they still produced matching covers for the later books. I’m going to end up with nine volumes of Howe covers, four volumes of this set of Morris covers, and then the next trilogy in another set of Morris covers. And while the new ones (the only ones that the entire series will be in) are good, they’re my least favourite of the three! Honestly, if I could get complete sets in both these Morris designs and in the Howe designs, I probably would buy them all (eventually). But as it is, if you want a complete set you need to wait until the author dies before you buy anything, to make sure they’re not going to write any more books with a different cover design…

 

P.P.S. still pissed off that my ISP periodically bans access to WordPress.

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One thought on “City of Dragons, by Robin Hobb

  1. Totally agree with your final comment about covers. I’ll soon buy all the Morris collection but then there is the normal Morris covers, the shiny Morris covers, etc. Also the Piebald book isn’t even the same format if I’m not mistaken …

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