The Golden Age of Epic Fantasy (a review of Robin Hobb’s Dragon Keeper)

If the Golden Age of science fiction is twelve, it’s quite possible that the golden age of epic fantasy is fifteen. That’s the age when nobody understand you, the world is deeply unfair, and romantic angst proliferates.

Dragon Keeper (Eos, January 26, 2010 in the USA; the UK version has a definite article and a better cover, and came out last year) fits neatly into that sweet spot.

This book, the first in a new trilogy, marks a return to the setting of Hobb’s Liveship Traders books: the Rain Wilds, a vast swampy forest where anything that lives must live in the trees, because a caustic river runs through it. Dragons had all but died out in this world, as a result of a particularly nasty/clever worldbuilding twist that I won’t spoil, for those who have not yet read that first trilogy. But now they have returned to the world—and the first group to undergo metamorphosis into their adult forms are crippled due to privation and neglect.

Because of this, they constitute an economic drain on local humans, who have contracted with the lone surviving adult dragon to care for her kin. When that dragon vanishes amid rumors that disaster or love have befallen her, the young dragons gradually slip further and further down the ladder of civic commitments, until certain elements of the human establishment are strongly considering selling them off for parts.

But a new bargain is struck, and the dragons require Keepers for an arduous journey upriver, where they believe the fabled city of their ancestors—and salvation—lies. Thriftily, the local government decides to send along their misfits and genetic sports, because in the Rain Wilds, people have a tendency to be born scaled, frilled, or with claws—and to grow ever more so “marked” as time goes by.

Among those slated to accompany the dragons are Thymara, a heavily “marked” Forest girl raised among the lofty walkways and treehouses of the Rain Wilds; Alise, a bluestocking scholar of dragons who has slipped the lead of her predictably brutal marriage to go adventuring; and Leftrin, the captain of the wizardwood barge Tarman, who can go where no other such boat can travel.

(I admit to a readerly suspicion that the Rain Wilders’ deformities, the source of the flesh-eating river, and the history of the dragons and the fabled city will all turn out to be inextricably linked. And if the Rain Wild people aren’t somehow linked to dragons, I’ll eat my laptop—especially as there are strong hints that the dragons too are capable of Lamarckian evolution.)

I had a few disappointments with this book. I have to admit, in a rain forest, I would have expected it to be raining more often, just as a matter of setting—but that’s a minor quibble, as were my problems with the names of some of the minor characters (Alum, Lecter, and so on).

More seriously, the prose felt rougher than I expect of Hobb, who is generally in very good control of her writing, and a fine stylist. But in this book, bits of exposition phrased as if we had just met a character were repeated when that person showed up for the second or third time, and it felt as if the book could have used one more fiddly editing pass. Alas, this contributes to a general feel of paddedness. There’s a great deal to like here, in the setting and worldbuilding, but the characters often felt self-absorbed and static to me, and the story didn’t really feel like it got rolling until the book was two-thirds done. Admittedly, it is the first volume of a series, but I could have done with a little less elaborate depiction of how the world was unfair to our heroes and a little more peril.

The leisurely pace can be forgiven, however, in light of a certain amount of companion-animal-fantasy snark, which (predictably) delighted me. I was even willing to forgive the book a level of coyness about same-sex relationships that left me uncomfortable in light of how much I liked the crabby, whiny, self-centered, vain, and generally unprepossessing dragons.

Additionally, a deeply entertaining political gloss provided by the notes slipped into dispatches by two pigeon-keepers who never appear in their own persons was my favorite element of the story. It’s a great expositional trick, and it’s helped by the fact that I found myself caring deeply about the mundane soap opera of the pigeon-keepers’ negotiations over squabs, apprentices, and bags of feed.

In general, I think this is a promising start to a new series.

Elizabeth Bear is the Hugo and Sturgeon Award winning author of many books and short stories.


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