As a big fan of Robin Hobb's The Liveship Traders trilogy, a return to the Rain Wilds, even for the duration of a single novel, got me excited as soon as the author mentioned it in my last interview with her. Even better, this new story arc wouldn't be a direct sequel to the series, but something altogether different. Unfortunately, the tale grew in proportions that were not envisioned, forcing the publishers to split The Dragon Keeper into two installments which would comprise The Rain Wild Chronicles.
The Dragon Keeper has already been released in the UK, to be followed by Dragon Haven (Canada, USA, Europe) in the spring. The US edition of the first volume will be published on this side of the pond this winter, while the conclusion should hit the shelves at the end of 2010.
Here's the blurb:
Return to the world of the Liveships Traders and journey along the Rain Wild River in this standalone adventure from the author of the internationally acclaimed Farseer trilogy. Guided by the great blue dragon Tintaglia, they came from the sea: a Tangle of serpents fighting their way up the Rain Wilds River, the first to make the perilous journey to the cocooning grounds in generations. Many have died along the way. With its acid waters and impenetrable forest, it is a hard place for any to survive. People are changed by the Rain Wilds, subtly or otherwise. One such is Thymara. Born with black claws and other aberrations, she should have been exposed at birth. But her father saved her and her mother has never forgiven him. Like everyone else, Thymara is fascinated by the return of dragons: it is as if they symbolise the return of hope to their war-torn world. Leftrin, captain of the liveship Tarman, also has an interest in the hatching; as does Bingtown newlywed, Alise Finbok, who has made it her life's work to study all there is to know of dragons. But the creatures which emerge from the cocoons are a travesty of the powerful, shining dragons of old. Stunted and deformed, they cannot fly; some seem witless and bestial. Soon, they become a danger and a burden to the Rain Wilders: something must be done. The dragons claim an ancestral memory of a fabled Elderling city far upriver: perhaps there the dragons will find their true home. But Kelsingra appears on no maps and they cannot get there on their own: a band of dragon keepers, hunters and chroniclers must attend them. To be a dragon keeper is a dangerous job: their charges are vicious and unpredictable, and there are many unknown perils on the journey to a city which may not even exist...
The problem with The Dragon Keeper is that it was never meant to be split into two halves. Robin Hobb and her editors, if memory serves me right, realized that the manuscript had grown beyond what could fit into a single book during the final edit. Hence, it was too late to rewrite and re-arrange plotlines and add filler material, so that both volumes could more or less stand on their own. Which means that, essentially, The Dragon Keeper is a vast introduction to this new tale set in the Rain Wilds. It's very good, mind you. But the total absence of resolution and the "to be continued" ending might not sit well with some readers.
In terms of worldbuilding, it was a delight to return to the Rain Wilds and see how it has evolved since the events chronicled in The Liveship Traders. There is an uneasy truce between the Bingtown traders and the Chalced States. Rain Wild towns such as Trehaug and Cassarick have grown and changed with the influx of foreigners. One of the most fascinating facets of the book is the insight we get regarding the Rain Wild folks and their lifestyle.
As always, characterization remains Robin Hobb's strong suit. Few authors make their main characters suffer as much as Hobb does, and it appears that Thymara, Alise, and Sedric won't be spared this time around. The dragon Sintara is developing quite a personality, which bodes well for things to come. In addition, a few unexpected appearances by familiar faces was enjoyable, if only to discover what happened to these characters since we last saw them.
The emancipation of women and society's acceptance of gay people and gay couples are themes that lie at the heart of the story. Another theme explored by the dragon keepers' plotline will focus on how individuals shunned by society -- Rain Wilds youths who should have been exposed at birth, deformed dragons, and former slaves -- strive to find their own place in the world.
Given the fact that The Dragon Keeper is basically an introduction to a larger tale, it's hard to evaluate just how good it is on its own. The story is interesting, no question about it, yet the book remains a single half of a multilayered whole. Once both volumes are read, I have a feeling that this duology will be as good as anything Hobb has written. As things stand, this novel leaves you wanting more. . .
The final verdict: 7.5/10