Monday, March 8, 2010

joyful return to the rain wilds world of dragons and more from robin hobb

You cannot imagine my joy when The Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb turned up on my desk. Finally my favourite fantasy author had published a new book, but not only was it from my best-ever author, she'd also returned to my favourite of her imagined worlds.
Robin Hobb is one of the pseudonyms of author Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden, who is best known for her series of epic classical fantasy novels that are set in the world of the Six Duchies and the Rain Wilds. She has also written the series The Soldier Son set in entirely different world.
The Farseer Trilogy, The Liveship Traders and The Tawny Man series are all set in the same world as The Dragon Keeper, the first in a new series, The Rain Wild Chronicles. Hobb's world is peopled with humans and dragons, sailing ships that are sentient, and mediaeval machinations. The technology level is relatively low, but the depth of emotion her characters display is what makes her work so wonderful.
In The Dragon Keeper, Hobb returns readers to the Rain Wilds, an area of impenetrable forest with trees so enormous people have built cities in them, with river water so poisonous it rots your boots and with a miasma in the air that touches its human denizens with odd growths and seemingly genetic mutations. The Rain Wilds are also home to magical products and items created by the long-gone Elderlings and a source of the region's trading wealth.
In previous series the true origin of the marvellous 'wizard wood' that was used to build the Liveships – sailing ships that became sentient and had figureheads that speak – has been discovered. The 'wood' was, in fact, the casings of hibernating dragons, containing their memories and sentience. The Liveships are the bastard offspring of murdered dragons and human ingenuity.
But dragons have returned to the world, at least one of them, and the Rain Wilders (the citizens of the Rain Wilds) have been forced by that dragon to help protect then next generation. It turned out that the massive sea serpents that dogged the Liveships were the dragons in larval form. But an ancient disaster – most likely a volcano eruption – had destroyed the dragons' homeland and stopped the serpents from going into hibernation. Hundreds of generations later only a few of the serpents can be coaxed up the poisonous Rain Wild River and into their cocoons.
This is where The Dragon Keeper opens; the first new dragons have broken out of their cocoons but the transformations have not been entirely successful. The dragons are deformed, they're hungry and they don't care for humans. Something needs to be done with them before they destroy the fragile peace in the Rain Wilds.
Like the dragons, Thymara is also unwelcome. Born deformed with the telltale scales and claws of the Rain Wild 'affliction', she should have been exposed at birth, but her sentimental father chose to keep her alive. Now she's an adult and is becoming more and more isolated in her home; she's ostracised and needs to find a new path. The city council's decision to send the dragons off to search for their vaguely remembered city of Kelsingra is the chance Thymara needs.
Now, along with a motley bunch of other misfits, Thymara is a 'dragon keeper', charged with helping to feed, guide and care for her particular dragon. The dragons remember having 'special humans' to assist them in the past and use all their wiles to ensure their new carers dote on their every whim. But not all of the outcast Rain Wilders are unhappy to have been sent away, some are pleased to finally be away from the restrictions of their society and are hell bent on building their own new world, the dragons are just a means to an end.
Along for the ride is a Bingtown matron, newlywed Alise Finbok, who has convinced her society husband to allow her to visit the dragons. Once she discovers that they're about to set off on their own adventure, Alise tags along, much to the disgust of her chaperone, her husband's personal secretary. Alise's story is in strong contrast to Thymara’s; she comes from a privileged background and although unhappy in her marriage, is strung around with her own set of rules.
Once again Hobb has created a series of characters that capture the reader's emotions from the outset. One feels Alise's frustration at society's rules, feels Thymara's regret at leaving her father and her covert excitement at working with the dragons. One rails against the machinations of Sedric, the secretary's, devious notions and one is dying to find out if the dragons' city of Kalsingra truly exists.
Like all her work, The Dragon Keeper is a substantial work. There are numerous storylines and plots that are offered to tantalise the reader, the author knowing that the best way to keep people buying her books is to keep the reader guessing.
Hobb has a deft skill with description, explaining something in the context of her imagined world, while the reader is able to 'read through the lines' so to speak and make their own conclusions. The catastrophe that destroyed the dragons' world is, most likely, a volcano – but the word, unknown to the Rain Wilders, is never mentioned. Likewise, the changes the Rain Wilders undergo are, most likely, related to environmental poisons polluting their genetic makeup – but that's a 'real world' interpretation. Maybe it's magic?
Who cares? The completely engrossing world that Hobb has created is enough for any reader. The finely wrought detail of social mores, tree-bound living, dragon memories and legendary stories is all one needs to enjoy these books. Hobb is a classic fantasy author of stature – she is certain to go into the annals as a champion of the genre.
While, as always in fantasy, it is best if people have read the earlier books – star with The Farseer Trilogy and work outwards – The Dragon Keeper can be read as a stand-alone book. There is enough explanation to assist first-time readers. Readers who love fantasy will surely have experienced Robin Hobb before, but if you haven't, I can't recommend these books highly enough.
I was so engrossed and excited to have this book in my hands that I sat down and read it in one sitting – all through the night! And so, am equally excited to hear that the next book, Dragon Haven, is about to be released; I can't wait.

The Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb is published by Harper Voyager and is available from good bookstores and online.


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