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bloodofdragonsInscrutable dragons and a mysterious city: the final volume of Robin Hobb’s latest series ties up the loose ends and reveals a few surprises.

Blood of Dragons is the fourth and final book in The Rain Wild Chronicles and follows seamlessly from City of Dragons, the third volume. It picks up the story at the point where some of the stunted dragons have learned to fly and have reached Kelsingra, the legendary dragon city. The dragon keepers are rapidly changing into Elderlings under the influence of the dragons and the city. Tarman (the Liveship) returns, with his captain, Leftrin, and the characters are absorbed in making a life in the new settlement.

But there is a major problem – although Kelsingra has largely been brought back to life and offers healing and enlightenment to all, the reason for the city’s establishment, its subsequent abandonment and the near-destruction of the dragons gradually becomes clear.

Alise mused aloud, ‘There are odd mentions in some of the old manuscripts, things I was never able to make sense of. Hints that there was a special reason for Kelsingra to exist, something secret, something to guard …’

If they don’t find access to the secret magic, the dragons and the new Elderlings will never attain their full powers and will again be in danger of extinction. And a baby might die.

This is not the only problem facing the settlers. The Bingtown Traders are on their way to claim the treasures of Kelsingra, and among them is Alise Finbok’s egregious husband, Hest, searching for her and his ex-lover Sedric and his share of the profits the ancient city must surely yield. Some murderously dangerous people take over the expedition and Hest finally starts to pay the price for his arrogance and abusive behaviour.

Other strands of the story are also being brought to climax. Selden, the Elderling, is near death, still imprisoned in Chalced, where the mad and dying Duke is keeping him for his dragon-like qualities:

The Duke breathed through his nose as he sucked the blood … the slow moments dragged by and the breathing became stronger … Thin he still was, but there was a faint flush on his cheeks now. His eyes were half-opened as if in pleasure and they were brighter than Ellik had seen them in months.

The oldest dragon, IceFyre, has hooked up with Tintaglia, the great dragon who is bonded to Selden; both have been badly injured and must make their separate ways to Kelsingra in the hope of being healed.

The story thread of the Keepers of the Birds also again weaves through the narrative, culminating in a tale of betrayal and cupidity.

As with the previous books in the series, the real strengths of Blood of Dragons are the characterisations and the intricately imagined world of the Rain Wild. The relationships between characters are unsentimental (except, perhaps, occasionally with Sedric and Carson) and often confront serious issues like difference, conflict and abuse.

The characterisation of the dragons, which has been developing through the series, is one of this book’s triumphs. They are inscrutable to the humans who continue to attempt to both anthropomorphise and domesticate them. Although the dragons feel themselves to have been slightly changed by human contact, they remain bafflingly ‘other’, inviting metaphorical interpretation, as does much of Hobb’s writing:

[It was] an excellent sign of how swiftly they were bonding … ‘Shall I help you, Blue Glory? You could call me Glory’s Master. Or Silver Rider.’

The dragon still looked down on him, considering each name carefully. His eyes spun faster and faster. ‘No. I think not,’ he said, and amusement shimmered in the rumbling voice. ‘I think I will name you “Meat”.’

The Rain Wild Chronicles was originally intended to be a trilogy, but expanded into this fourth book. The last volume in a series like this must inevitably tie up the loose ends and resolve the various storylines into fairly predictable outcomes. This doesn’t mean there can’t be surprises along the way, and there are. But it does mean there isn’t much new plot to explore and the story proceeds slowly to its largely predictable close.

A slow pace is not necessarily a bad thing – the great charm of Hobb’s novels is that they take the time for characters to develop and for the reader to observe them going about their daily lives in the densely created landscapes she offers. But some of Blood of Dragons is a bit too slow, and the interplay of characters and the development of their relationships become familiar and predictable, rather than adding to the story – for example, the love-triangle of Thymara, Rapskal and Tats keeps going over old ground, although Rapskal does undergo a frightening transformation.

In other sections the action feels rushed – as in the dragon war with Chalced. Hobb is not a swords-and-battles writer, thankfully, but here it feels as if a possibility for effective dramatic conflict has been lost. Unusually for her, there are also some interpersonal complications that seem too hastily skimmed over – as in the potential corruption of Carson’s nephew.

The book is, however, a must-read for those who have read the other three and it contains a great deal to enjoy. Although it is not as strong as the others (perhaps there simply wasn’t enough story for four volumes) it still has wonderful passages of imaginative writing and it still transports the reader into the uniquely fascinating and complex world that imbues all Hobb’s novels. We can hope to see, or at least hear of, Kelsingra and her dragons again in further series.

Robin Hobb Blood of Dragons: Book Four of The Rain Wild Chronicles HarperCollins 2013 PB 544pp $29.99

You can buy this book from Abbey’s here or from Booktopia here.

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