Book Review 2009 #56: Dragon Keeper

NB: I received an ARC of this book as part of the Amazon Vine program

Life in the jungle filled Rain Wilds is tough. Whether you live in half-ruined Bingtown, recently rebuilding from a war with a long time adversary, or if you live deeper in the Rain Wilds, where buildings are built into the trees, and social position is based on how low to the ground you can manage to live, its a tough life. The fact that the river itself is somewhat acidic and inimical adds to the dangerous ground.
To this dangerous environment, add Dragons, hatched from Sea Serpent eggs, and protected by a bargain the egg layer has made with the Rain Wilds folk to care for the creatures. Mix in the fact that these dragons are stunted, malformed and some of them are nearly feral. These are far from your typical fantasy dragons!
Set in (as you might already have guessed) Hobb’s Farseer world, Dragon Keeper is the story of these malformed dragons, offspring of the true dragon Tintaglia (who featured prominently in the Liveship Traders series). Malformed and stunted as they are, they are not the creatures anyone expects, and are a burden on the Rain Wilders. The Dragons seize a chance to get the Rain Wilders to get them out of each other’s hair by sending them, with their keepers, upriver, in search of a legendary city from the prior Elderling civilization.
Dragon Keeper is also the story of two young and very different women. Thymara has the mutations and markings that make her a semi-outcast even amongst her people, and it is no wonder that she leaps at the chance to escape her home environment and join that expedition to repatriate the dragons further upriver. By comparison, Alise is a sheltered young woman, bound in a marriage that is literally only in name, whose study of scrolls and documents makes her, improbably, the foremost theoretical expert on Dragons and their former world. She, too, with both hands, leaps at the chance to escape her home life and join the expedition.
There are a small flock of secondary characters as well that mainly serve as relief and contrast to Alise and Thymara (although compared to many authors, they serve very well as defined characters).Sedric, secretary to Hest, and unwilling companion to Alise on her journey, is close as they come to being a third main character in the novel.
I’ve read a few of Hobb’s novels before (and under her pen name Megan Lindholm as well). Like those previous novels, she provides solid characters, a well fleshed out and thought out world, and has captured the magic of “one more page, one more chapter” in her writing style, leading the reader on to continue the journey. In addition to cutting between the two main characters, the chapters also have the text of messages sent between bird keepers, which provides a third, objective view of some events and helps flesh out the world as really extending beyond the words on the page.
While I think reading some of the previous Farseer books (especially the Liveship Traders–there are Liveships in this novel, naturally) might be useful for understanding some events, since most of this book is set in the isolated backcountry, I think this book can serve as a gateway book to Hobb’s work.
The only weakness to the book, and its endemic to a lot of fantasy these days, is that this is an unfinished story.This is the first in a duology and even as such, this first novel does not stand alone.
However, given the richness of the book, I will *definitely* be looking to getting and reading the second book when it comes out. I also need to fill in the backlog of books of Hobbs in the Farseer world I haven’t read–Dragon Keeper helped remind me of the skill and craft in her worldbuilding and characters.
If you are looking for a low magic fantasy world with a different take on dragons, or if you are a previous fan of Hobb’s Farseer world, I recommend Dragon Keeper to you.