What was most surprising about The Dragon Keeper, after the sheer density of Robin Hobb’s earlier Liveship Traders series, is that it is so slight: where are the interweaving plots, the multi-stranded stories separating and diverging? Where the Liveship books were a veritable serpent tangle to be patiently teased out through the course of three books, with hints gleaned from the two other series set in the same world to both elucidate and cloud, here are simple strands to follow from page one to the end.
The Dragon Keeper starts where The Liveship Traders leaves off, with the tangle of serpents which has been guided up the Rainwild River to the ancestral grounds where they can make their cocoons and hatch as dragons. Three people have a particular interest in the hatching. Leftrin, captain of the barge Tarman, one of the first of the liveships, has one of the few vessels with a shallow enough draft to navigate the upper reaches of the Rainwild beyond the hatching grounds, and his help is needed when it becomes necessary to move the young dragons. Alise Finbok has spent her adult life studying dragons and the Elderlings, and is the foremost expert in Bingtown, though scarcely acknowledged as such. Her learning is from ancient records, so when the opportunity to travel to the Rainwilds to actually see the dragons arises, she grasps it with determination. We also follow Thymara, one of the group of young Rain Wilders recruited to become dragon keepers – their task will be to hunt for and care for the dragons during the journey in search of the ancient city of Kelsingra, where it is hoped the dragons may find the extensive hunting grounds they lack at the city of Trehaug. The other character we are most concerned with is Sintara, the young dragon queen, a creature with all the arrogance of her kin, yet lacking the memories which should have been imprinted and reinforced at every stage of her life cycle. For the pattern of serpent, cocoon, dragon has been disrupted, the dragon Tintaglia who guided the serpents to the hatching grounds is long gone, and the new dragons are ill-formed and flightless.
I’ve mentioned before that I struggled with Hobbs' most recent Soldier Son trilogy, which I found laboured and depressing. I developed such an antipathy to the main character that it was an effort to continue, but I persevered almost t the end in the hope that somehow things would pick up at the last minute and my sympathies would be engaged. I had something of a precedent with the Farseer trilogies – I never found Fitz particularly sympathetic – and it was the Liveship series that first really hooked me, after which I went back to the others to look for more of those plot hints alluded to earlier. So it was a relief to dive straight into The Dragon Keeper and I raced through it in a couple of days.
Dragon Haven completes the story, and for obvious reasons, I don’t want to say much about it. Again, I whizzed through at speed, completely unable to put it down. The first book had ended with a cliff hanger, which I’d been dying to see resolved and, although the young dragons are a pretty surly bunch, it’s hard not to feel sorry for them, so I desperately hoped that all would work out well for them.
I loved the covers to both books – they were a real pleasure to look at. Two more to count towards the Once Upon a Time Four Challenge, which has been as ever enormous fun, with some wonderful reviews.