If Dragon Keeper, the first installment of Hobb’s new Rain Wilds Chronicles series, was long-winded for what it accomplished, the second volume corrects that fault. Often, Book Twos are bridges, but in this case felt as if Book Two was where the story actually kicked into gear, and what had been past was merely prologue. Here, at last, is significant character development. Here is exploration of the world, and progress towards a goal beyond merely identifying it. And here are some developments in the central mysteries of the world.
Most of Dragon Keeper was devoted to establishing protagonists and villains and getting the quest fantasy show on the road, but Dragon Haven opens with the primary conflicts firmly in place and the characters struggling to run alongside the plot long enough to grab hold and swing aboard. This makes for much better momentum and a more interesting narrative, overall.
Thematically, this book also exhibits more unification and arc. At the core of this book are a series of romances and potential romances. There’s someone for everyone, apparently, including the carrier-pigeon keepers whose scribbled messages to one another remain one of the more enchanting aspects of the work. As characters work toward adulthood, they also pair offor fail to pair offin fairly predictable manners. And they finallyfinally!begin talking to one another.
As these various love affairs are commenced and hidden truths spoken, the villains are dealt with more or less summarily. While they serve to introduce some conflict, the bad guys are barely the point of this book. Rather, the narrative focuses on the efforts of the rag-tag band of dragons, dragon keepers, and escorts as they continue their search for the lost Elderling city of Kelsingra, which represents their only chance to survive and eventually flourish. Society itself is far more the enemy than the petty power-plays of those who would exploit the dragons for riches, or set themselves up as leaders.
The series still maintains its curiously young-adult atmosphere (I said of Dragon Keeper that it felt like a book I would have loved unreservedly at age fourteen), with a relatively direct thematic arc in which all of the main characters are groping toward some sort of adulthood. Alise, the bluestocking dragon expert, continues to grow in courage and self-determination; Thymara, the mutated child of the Rain Wilds, moves towards self-acceptance; Sintara, the egotistical and defensive dragon queen, gropes after a more nuanced understanding of the world; and Sedric, the treacherous fop, evolves from treachery toward integrity.
Of the point of view characters, the only one who feels like a strong adult is Leftrin, the captain of the liveship Tarman, who is a sensible and mature presence necessary to balance the more childish perspectives of the other characters.
Meanwhile, external changes in the various main characters mimic their internal growth, as the Rain Wilds continues to work its mutagenic magic on dragons and humans alike. This, too, was one of my favorite aspects of the bookthe sheer inventiveness with which Hobb brings the threads together is not revelatory, but it’s deft and delightful.
There is some actual external conflict in the narrative, but it’s mostly cursory. There’s a vast flood which serves to separate the party for a while; there’s the ongoing threat of those who would like to see the dragons parted out for sale (a clever little ecological fable). There’s a Boromir-esque party member who would be king, and another who is Not What He Seems. All in all, however, this is a book about character development, and a highly successful one at that.
Elizabeth Bear is a writer who has not yet quite been cured of wanting a dragon of her very own, although Sintara is trying.