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The dragons and their attendants have found Kelsingra, but can they keep it?

Robin Hobb’s The Rain Wild Chronicles series began as a one-off novel, Dragon Keeper (2009), which was cut into two, producing Dragon Haven (2010) as well. City of Dragons was meant to complete the trilogy but it has also evolved into two books and its sequel, Blood of Dragons, will be published next year.

In the first two books we encountered a world in which dragons had become a highly endangered species of large predator. In Dragon Keeper, with the aid of one of the remaining great dragons, Tintaglia, a last clutch of eggs manages to hatch, but the young dragons are weak and deformed – and they are unable to fly. They still partake of remnants of their ancestral memory, however, and they speak of the possibly mythical dragon city, Kelsingra, located at the head of the acidic Rain Wild River. As they grow, they become an increasing burden on local human society and it’s decided by the Rain Wild Councils to get rid of them by sending them to find the dragon city. A group of very disparate misfits is chosen to be their keepers and to accompany them on a perilous journey that may have no real destination.

In Dragon Haven, the journey begins in earnest. As the liveship Tarman makes his way up-river we have space in this book to further get to know the main protagonists and their relationships: Leftrin, the captain of Tarman; the hunters who must keep the dragons fed; Alise, fleeing an unhappy and abusive marriage to further her research on dragons; Sedric, once Alise’s  awful husband’s lover and servant, and the motley crew of mostly young dragon keepers. Some of these keepers have already been changed by the peculiar conditions of the Rain Wilds and are considered unnatural freaks by the people they are leaving behind, marked, as they are, by strange growths, claws and weird colourations. As the journey continues and they become closer to their dragon charges, they also begin to change in other ways, as a physical and mental symbiosis occurs between keepers and dragons. They develop dragon-like scales and one of the keepers, Thymara, begins to grow embryonic wings. As well as battling the dangerous river, they must also deal with a traitor working for the merchants and rulers who have a vested interest in the dragons never reaching Kelsingra.

Finally, in City of Dragons, the dragons and their keepers will reach Kelsingra, the marvellous city built by the mysterious Elderlings specifically for dragons. But Kelsingra lies across the raging river and only one dragon, Heeby, has yet managed to fly. Rapskal, Heeby’s keeper, is able to ride her across to the city, and he is the first to realise that Kelsingra is still alive, waiting to be woken to its full wonders again – one of which will be the restoration of the dragons’ powers. Alise also manages to visit the city, but her historian’s impulse is very different. Not understanding the true nature of Kelsingra, she wants to preserve it and study it, and is terrified of disturbing it.

Every hair stood up on her body as a ghostly music began to play. It was thin and distant but unmistakably cheery. A horn tootled merrily and some string instruments pursued it, note for note. And then the statues began to move. Heads nodded in time to the music, the feather duster became a baton, the twin girls moved in unison, a step forward, a step back. Alise gave a sob of terror as they came to life. She tried to get to her feet and instead sat down flat. ‘No,’ she whispered in an agony of fear … Alise sat on the floor, rocking herself gently. ‘I saw it. It was real,’ she assured herself. And knew as she spoke the words that she was the last person who would ever see this particular Elderling magic.

This is the main thrust of the story, but as with Hobb’s other work, there are several parallel narratives. There is the story of Tintaglia, the mighty dragon who has apparently disappeared from the Rain Wilds world, but who the reader glimpses occasionally; there is the story of Selden Vestit, once Tintaglia’s human companion, first a captive in a freak show and then taken prisoner for an ailing duke who believes that Selden’s part-dragon flesh might cure his fatal illness; there is also the story of Alise’s husband, Hest Finbok, who is determined to find her and Sedric to punish them for running away – as heir to one of Bingtown’s major merchant families, he also wants his share of the dragons and the treasures of Kelsingra; and there are the pirates, merchants and fortune-hunters who will descend in droves once the discovery of the fabled city is made public. There are also developing love stories – the triangle of Thymara, Rapskal and Tats, and the relationships between Alise and Leftrin, and Sedric and the hunter Carson.  And there is the story of Leftrin and others returning down-river with their news, and what they will find when they get there. Interspersed with the main storylines in all three books so far are the letters between the Keepers of the Birds with their explanation of current affairs and the machinations of the enemy, their hints of conspiracies and dangers to our protagonists that they are unaware of and their own charming developing love story. We also get some of the story told through the other dragons’ point of view – alien and unsympathetic, but convincing on a very real level. In a recent interview, Hobb said, ‘I’m fascinated by the idea of a sentient species that is as arrogant and ruthless as humanity,’ and in these books she examines what people’s reactions might be to the threat of sharing their world with such another predator.

Her dragons may be alien, but they are presented as real, if intensely un-human personalities, and also as problems for the humans to deal with. We get authentic-seeming detail of their habits, and are constantly reminded that they are predators of a different sort from us:

A scarlet lightning bolt fell from the sky. The impact of the red dragon hitting the immense deer shook the earth. Thymara’s startled response was to release her arrow; it shot off in wobbly flight and struck nothing. In the same instant, there was a loud snap as the deer’s spine broke. It bellowed in agony, a sound cut short as the dragon’s jaws closed on the deer’s throat. Heeby jerked her prey off the ground and half-sheared the deer’s head from his neck. Then she dropped it before lunging in to rip an immense mouthful of skin and gut from the deer’s soft belly. She threw her head back and gulped the meat down. Dangling tendrils of gut stretched between her jaws and her prey.

The best fantasy writers – and Hobb is one of them – don’t only create magical worlds of the imagination, they also have original ways of conveying truths about our own culture through the prism of the fantastic. Like the fairytales and legends that precede them, they interpret our contemporary life by positing a world in which anything might happen, and they exemplify contemporary concerns in an alternative reality. In another interview, Hobb said, ‘One of the super powers of fantasy is that we can write stories where something that is shocking or unacceptable or even just frowned upon becomes ordinary in the fantasy setting. Then … we might find ourselves asking just why it is shocking … in our real existence.’

Although Hobb denies writing to illustrate contemporary concerns – and thankfully, her books are not overtly polemical at all, as some of Ursula le Guin’s and Sherri S Tepper’s became – there are themes that emerge through her work. Conservation is one – of the world and of species. Another is the problem of living an ethical life in the midst of greed and political connivance. Others are the tolerance of ‘difference’ and the tragedies that occur through intolerance; the complexity and fragility of eco-systems; the nature of love and friendship, and personal politics versus the corruption of politics with a capital P.

Hobb’s novels are social fantasies, culture and character-based rather than the Tolkien-clone quest/battle type of fantasy. Tolkien, too, had real concerns and serious themes to convey in his world of medieval quest and adventure, but unfortunately much of contemporary fantasy that follows his example only adopts the outward trappings and has little that’s interesting or original to say about the real or fictional world, people or the realm of the imagination. The Tolkien-clone school of fantasy (with some rare exceptions) is as formulaic and predictable as category romance, and is almost always padded to the point of losing all narrative drive and story development. Hobb’s world is multi-layered and original, its characters are complex and evolve through the books, and the quests are based solidly in the fantasy culture she creates. We believe in her characters, and their world, and we care what happens to them. Character, culture and theme dominate, and we don’t have to wade through page after repetitive page of battles in order to maintain some ersatz sense of pace and excitement. Hobb’s stories still adhere to the conventions of fantasy – the quest, with its small band of heroes struggling against adversity and the forces of evil, many obstacles and tensions in the way – but her characters and her world are created in such complexity and detail that they transcend the boundaries of the genre.

The wonderfully complicated world Hobb has created of the Elderlings’ realm, the six duchies, has been going for a long time – from The Farseer Trilogy (first volume Assassin’s Apprentice, 1995) and more directly through two other trilogies: Liveship Traders (first volume Ship of Magic, 1998) and The Tawny Man (first volume Fool’s Errand, 2002). Through so many books she has established a vibrant, intricate picture of an authentic society in change and evolution, with a diverse and many-stranded history. It’s not necessary to have read the others to enjoy The Rain Wild Chronicles, but it certainly adds depth and understanding, as familiar figures reappear in cameo roles or as legends, and familiar dilemmas resurface. If we understand the tragic origins of the liveships from Liveship Traders, then we feel much more for the puny, struggling dragons of The Rain Wild Chronicles.

Where the quest/battle Tolkien imitators are like the Disney versions of old fairytales, Hobb, and writers like her, are creating new and meaningful stories, as well as entertaining us. Through the brilliance of her imagination, her clean, strong writing, her unswerving sense of story, her sympathetic but unsentimental development of character, Hobb offers us new ways of reflecting and refracting our reality in a fantasy-world mirror and prompts us to think about not only all the pleasurably magical what-ifs, but also about the here and now, and what it means to be human in this or any other world.

Robin Hobb City of Dragons Harper Voyager 2012 425pp PB $29.95

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