Science fiction and fantasy                                            

The Dragon Keeper

by Robin Hobb


Misfits are everywhere in The Dragon Keeper. Alise has been left on the shelf for years and she despairs of ever getting married. She has resigned herself to a life of studious spinsterhood in the belief that she's too undesirable for any man, until Hest comes along. He's a little older than her and handsome, charming and a wealthy Trader. He seems too good to be true and she's baffled by his interest in her. But in spite of the poverty of her family and her freckles he courts her, and makes an offer for her hand she can't ignore.

Then there's Thymara, so marked by the Rain Wilds that her own people won't even look at her. She was meant to be exposed as a baby according to their custom, because people like her don't usually survive long. She is also forbidden to marry. But although she has scaling on her skin and black claws instead of nails, she's a capable hunter and very skilled at climbing the vast trees that make up the homes and walkways of her community.

Thymara is there to witness the hatching, when the serpents who fought their way up the river emerge from their cocoons at last. They were the dragon Tintaglia's hope for a new generation, but they too are misfits. For the humans who live near the hatching ground, wonder soon turns to disappointment and then resentment as they realise the dragons will not be all they expected. Harsh decisions have to be made about how many resources to give over to their care and feeding, and who will be responsible for them.

It's a cleverly iconoclastic idea to take creatures that are normally portrayed in fantasy as fierce, wise and noble, and to give them special needs. Robin Hobb does this with humanity, telling the story from multiple points of view and still managing to provoke our sympathy for all of them. I wouldn't say this book is slow paced, but the author has a way of drawing out situations to wring the maximum emotional impact from any given event. Our suspicions are allowed to coagulate into convictions before they harden into the exquisite certainty of a final revelation, by which point it hits us like a hammer blow to the heart. This happens over and over again as we're introduced to new characters and their stories play out. There's Captain Leftrin, skipper of the liveship Tarman, a hard worker with a host of secrets to keep. Then there's Sedric, the well-dressed Trader who reluctantly accompanies Alise on her quest to learn more about dragons, in spite of his misgivings and secret agendas. And friendships and rivalries blossom when Thymara hooks up with a group of people who are very much like herself.

The mixture of love and personal politics in this story is one of the things that makes it so appealing. The characters are largely new to this series, so although the book is set in Robin Hobb's usual universe it's not confusing to read this before the various other trilogies, although there may be some spoilers for earlier books. However it's not a stand-alone story, clearly working as an introduction for at least a trilogy. It's a thick book, but for me the pages flew by as I found myself immersed in the lives of these flawed dragons, their keepers and the crew and passengers of the Tarman as they set out on an uncertain journey through unexplored territory. It's a subtle and compelling story that delivers magic whilst promising plenty more to come.

18th October 2011

Book Details

Year: 2009

Categories: Books


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5 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson
Read more about Robin Hobb