Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb

Dragon Keeper

a review by Nalini Haynes

Dragon Keeper is the first of the Rain Wilds Chronicles by Robin Hobb. The short review: read it. Now.  The longer version…

The review: short form

Dragons were thought to be extinct but have miraculously reappeared in the form of one dragon, Tintaglia, who hatched when all hope was lost.  Tintaglia organised a hurried and belated expedition to help serpents to their cocooning place where they would metamorphose into dragons.  Upon hatching, the dragons were all deformed.  Tintaglia helped feed the hatchlings for a while then left to roam with her newfound mate.

Sintara, one of the hatchling dragons, despises herself and her peers for their deformities.  Sintara must come to terms with her inability to fly and other physical deficiencies while her racial memories taunt her with the knowledge dragons have never been disabled before.

Alise is the plain middle daughter of a respectable trading family in Bingtown.  Her lack of marriage prospects inspires her to find a lifelong hobby: the study of dragons.  Alise agrees to a marriage of convenience to Hest without realising her intended is gay or understanding his true nature.  Her greatest desire is to visit the dragons, who were hatched far upriver from Bingtown.

Sedric is Hest’s lover, living in the marital home, posing as Hest’s secretary and, later, as Alise’s chaperone.  Alise is so naive she suspects Hest of having a lover but does not consider a male lover.

Thymara is a Rain Wilds child who should have been killed or exposed at birth due to her obvious reptilian characteristics, considered deformities.  Thymara’s father rescued her, to his partner’s shame.  Thymara’s mother loathes her ‘deformed’ child, and may have tried to kill Thymara.  Thymara has no future within her community as she is unable to marry or have children and their lives are so hard it takes two people working together to sustain themselves; one alone will not survive.

Leftrin is a captain of a liveship, a barge built from dragon casings.  The barge, Tarman, is extraordinary before Leftrin enhances it with more ‘wizardwood’ (dragon casing material).   Leftrin’s actions have left him open to blackmail.

These point of view characters evolve, gradually revealing layers of their histories, their relationships and their desires.  The plot unfolds a story of background political maneuvering resulting in an expedition to relocate the dragons; the expedition includes about 30 people with diverse motivations.  The varied points of view help to build depth and bring character to the story.  Dragon Keeper is a masterpiece.

Exploration of issues of Equity and Disability – some spoilers

Equity and disability are strong themes within Dragon Keeper.  The dragons and most of the dragon keepers are ‘disabled’ or ‘deformed’ in some way.  Alise, as a woman in her society, is subordinate to the patriarchy, to her family of origin then to her husband.  Sedric’s fear of exposure as a gay man and his subordinate status to Hest in their intimate relationship brings forward other equity issues.  Dynamics within the group of dragon keepers, who are fairly consistently ‘deformed’ – creating a kind of equity – then become hierarchical based on strength, manipulation and gender.

Hobb vividly explores issues of disability, showing societal ostracism, maternal loathing and self-hatred in the various characters’ stories.  The development of hierarchy within the disabled community of dragons based upon degrees of disability and power is so human-like I wondered if Hobb has experience of the disability community or if she is ‘merely’ writing from an understanding of human nature.

Alise is subordinate to her family’s wishes: if she fails to marry then she remains a burden to them, unable to support herself within their society as in a Jane Austen novel.  When Hest courts Alise, she expects it to end but his pursuit of her is consistent.  He won her heart with a scroll about dragons and a promise to support her studies, without revealing his true character or his attraction to men.  On her wedding night, Alise is devastated when the nature of their married life is set in motion, but she tries to come to terms with Hest’s desired lifestyle.  After years pass with no heir, Hest grows increasingly abusive, even resorting to rape in one of their infrequent sexual encounters.

Alise feels disempowered by Hest’s verbal abuse and manipulations coupled with social expectations.  It’s unclear exactly how much her society has disempowered Alise and how much this disempowerment is a result of upbringing and an abusive marriage, with the threat of poverty hanging over her like Damocles’s Sword.  During her journey, Alise meets a couple who have an equitable marriage.  She later blossoms under the attentions of the admiring Leftrin although she intends to remain faithful to her husband.

Sedric’s relationship with Hest is gradually revealed, including the seeds of the relationship sown with violence and domination.  Sedric is clearly consistently attracted to men but it’s unclear whether he enjoys pain: it appears Sedric may not enjoy pain but rather accept pain and physical abuse as part of the ‘package’ of a relationship with Hest, his lover.  Sedric is definitely subordinate to Hest in all things; their relationship is more like a traditional husband and wife relationship than Hest and Alise’s relationship.  Sedric fears exposure in Bingtown because gay relationships are not publicly socially acceptable.  Hest refuses to leave Bingtown because he enjoys his life and advantages there.  Sedric plots an escape regardless, dreaming of a better future with Hest elsewhere, in a location where men can live together openly.

Social dynamics within the group of dragon keepers are drawn masterfully, showing the ‘forming, norming, storming’ cycle that is inevitable in any group development while revealing deep characters with believable motivations.  The one dragon keeper who is not ‘deformed’ is identified as an outsider by a rival.  Relationships develop according to motivations while a hierarchy evolves, factoring in strength, power, gender and peer pressure.

The social dynamics of Dragon Keeper are photorealism, painted with masterful strokes that engage the reader with the characters and the plot, racing towards the finish.  I’m glad I waited to read this – I don’t have to wait for the next installment.  Read. This. Book.  It’s a masterpiece.