City of Dragons by Robin Hobb

city of dragons

a review by Nalini Haynes

City of Dragons is the third Rain Wilds Chronicles novel by Robin Hobb. Dragon Keeper and Dragon Haven are the first and second Rain Wilds Chronicles books respectively, reviews at the links. If you haven’t read any of these books, I recommend reading the Dragon Keeper review as the City of Dragons review has spoilers for the earlier books.

The dragons have arrived at Kelsingra, the lost city of dragons, but are trapped on the opposite shore due to the wide river and swift current.  Leftrin and his crew take Tarman, a sentient barge, back to Cassarick to collect everyone’s pay for fulfilling their contracts and purchase supplies.  The dragons, their keepers and Alise stay behind in the shepherd village overlooking the river and Kelsingra.

The Duke of Chalced, an ominous character acting off-stage in the first two books, steps into the foreground as a point of view character early in City of Dragons, as does his Chancellor and a number of minions.  Tintaglia, the oldest dragon queen, is attacked by the Duke’s soldiers seeking dragon body parts to heal the duke.  Selden, Tintaglia’s favourite elderling – human transformed by a dragon – sold into slavery by his travelling companions, ends up a prisoner of the Duke. These new point of view characters, foreshadowed in previous books, step seamlessly into the limelight to ramp up the action and tension in this, the third but not last Rain Wilds Chronicle.

The dragons have evolved from disabled hatchlings into sufferers of infirmity needing physical therapy to restore them to some semblance of normal functioning. Although Hobb does not vary in her assertions that the dragons are not human, they seem all too human to me: their reactions to realisation of their position and need of physical therapy varies from wise acceptance to capriciousness and spite, retaliating against their keepers who try to motivate the dragons to greater efforts.

The dragon keepers were originally sent on an expedition from which they were expected not to return; their home town did not want them due to their deformities.  They have survived their journey and have chosen not to return with Leftrin and their crew. They are changing into Elderlings but there are so few of them, what will become of them? Many if not all of them seek intimate companionship but there are not enough members of the expedition.  How will this budding community survive this winter?  If they survive the winter, how will they manage to build a future with so few people?  Will they be able to withstand the expected onslaught of people from their home towns who have already rejected them but who will come to Kelsingra to loot Elderling treasures?

Intimate relationships develop well, each relationship as different as the characters involved.  Sex scenes tend to be ‘off stage’ but intimacy is shown beautifully in conversations, yearnings, intimate gestures and even comedic interplay. There is something for everyone in these relationships. Hobb uses these relationships to further the plot and character development, never slowing the story.

A pregnancy raises questions that, in contemporary Western society, equate to whether to abort a deformed or disabled child: will the parents ask the midwife to kill or expose their child if it does not meet society’s standards?  What will the parents do if the child is born and it survives?  Will the child die due to its deformity regardless of the parents’ decisions?

I’m currently part-way through the fourth book in the series, hoping for answers to all these questions and more.  I’ve had to be firm with myself, sitting down to write this before City of Dragons and Blood of Dragons (the next book) irrevocably blur together.  I’m riveted, loving the story.  Varied characters have depth and believable motivations.  Tension builds effectively through relationships and direct interaction, masterfully demonstrating ‘show don’t tell’ storytelling.  The plot thickens, stakes raised by bringing characters from the wings onto centre stage in this, the third book.

This review is OVER.  I have a book to finish.