Robin Hobb’s Dragon Keeper is a long trek to no where.  However to be fair, it’s a gorgeous, immersive one with strong characters, even if I do get a sense that the author has a thing against men. Sadly, despite the title and cover, the dragons are only a small part of the immediate action.

Since there’s no where else to stick it in this blog, here’s the book, complete with its raised text:

The publisher only want you to think the above scene happens.

When I bought this I thought I was buying the sequel, though I didn’t know the sequel was a sequel. I saw the hard back hogging shelf space at Barnes and Noble and after tip toeing around the glowing review fragments, I was intrigued by the similarities to my own work. For some reason dragons are hatching sick and deformed, a shell of their former selves, and since their presence around men is such a pain (they do complain constantly and aren’t afraid to eat people,) a plan is devised to move them from where they’ve been stuck for too long. Those enslaved to, I mean put in charge of moving them, are humans born with reptilian mutations, like scales and claws. Some are worse than others. Usually these people are disposed of at birth as no one wants them around trying to pollute humanity by breeding with those who are normal. So what better plan than to send both them and dragons far away? Maybe the dragons will even eat them.

I read the prologue before I even bought the book. Hobb has an artful handle on our language. It’s not in a “look at how clever I am” way, but she knows the right words to use to get subtle changes in emotion from the reader. She draws you into every scene and environment. As an example, it’s the difference between a “sizzling steak” and a “cooking steak.” The former you can really feel. That’s something I strive to do with my serious work.

The dragons in this book begin life as sea serpents. Eventually they have to cocoon themselves to develop into true dragons, but this is where their development goes wrong. Why is a mystery. They’re further angry because their queen, who promised to return to help them, is missing. They’re intelligent and can speak, though don’t really care to talk to humans. An aspect of their lives that at first horrified me, then intrigued me with its possibilities, is that they gain the memories of other dragons by eating each other. Not alive, thankfully, but anytime one of them perishes there’s a rush to feast on the flesh. Any one dragon could have memories of many others. It’s nearly a collective consciousness. I want to see if anything useful comes from it in the sequel.

As interesting as I found the dragons, unfortunately if one is opening this book looking for great percentage of dragon material, they’ll be let down. There’s that fantastic opening scene, then we get a few sparse bits in the middle, then the last fifth of the book pulls them into the active plot. It’s about five hundred pages of others talking about dragons, but keeping them in the background. The bits we get serve to show how unpleasant they are to each other, and in the end how little most humans think of them.

The good news is Hobb does character very well, so even the humans are fun to read. I could have enjoyed the book even if we never saw the dragons. Most of the story focuses on two female leads. There’s Alise, who’s dreamed her whole life about studying dragons. Her only opportunity to do this comes from marrying a wealthy trader named Hest, who turns out to be a frighteningly dickish antagonist, and of course doesn’t react too well to being reminded that he has to let his wife run off to chase childish fantasies without having given him an heir yet. Their sex is terrible. He really knows how to pull the victim card when accused of being a terrible mate too. His servant for a while is Alise’s only friend, and I did like him for most of the book, but he ends up being a bit of a heartless wimp when his affections are on the line. The other female is Thymara, one of the mutated humans. Her mother likes to pretend she doesn’t exist. Her father is dealing with regrets at saving her. So, to solve their problems, she gets sent off on this mission to move the dragons. She meets other mutants (while the reader is still waiting on dragons) and I did like most of these new characters, including one who’s plenty creepy in his desire to be with Thymara and drive a wedge between her and her friend, Tats. So, another male who appears to exist to use women. Really, does Robin Hobb hate men?

I’m not complaining as much as it may sound. I’m simply amused at what seems to be a trend. Hobb does take the more realistic approach where all characters have their good and bad sides. They’re deep and well written, and thankfully we don’t have to suffer through any internal monologue where someone’s talking about how evil they are and what evil things they’re going to do. I’ve had enough of that for the year. The dragons seem like dragons too, not men in dragon suits. They’re fascinating (even with their unpleasantness) and I hope in the next book we get more of them. They are in a terrible situation: deformed, dying, living in their own filth, and suffering with memories of a better life lost long in the past. It’s no wonder they come off the way they do.

If I had one issue with the book (other than wanting more dragons) it’s that it just stops, and right after a long, drawn out scene that was painful to watch. I was almost ill afterward. It’s like someone just cut the book in half. Oh wait, that is what happened. The book was originally twice as long, but it was cut into two novels instead. So, the sequel is really just the rest of this. It would have been a 1,000 page novel otherwise. I’ve never seen a book simply stop like this one. Sometimes an ending will be abrupt, but this is like bungee jumping and your chord was too long.