The Dragon Keeper - Robin Hobb The Dragon Keeper is the second book I've ever read by Robin Hobb, the first being Assassin's Apprentice, book one of the Farseer trilogy. My first thought after reading that one was that I liked it well enough; Robin Hobb is great storyteller, and Assassin's Apprentice was quite enjoyable. Still, while I was definitely on board to read the rest of the series, nothing about it excited me enough to make me want to drop everything and rush out for the sequel, if you know what I mean. In fact, it's been almost two years since I read the first book, and I still haven't gotten around to Royal Assassin. Shameful, I know.

Now, I realize I should really make the effort to finish up young Fitz's story first, but then The Dragon Keeper landed on my lap. This first book of the Rain Wild Chronicles has gotten rave reviews from many of my fantasy-book-loving friends, so I admit I've always been curious about the series. That, and it's hard to resist the prospect of a good story about dragons.

The book begins with a group of sea serpents journeying upriver to cocoon themselves so that they might hatch into dragons. They are overseen by Tintaglia, the last known dragon. It is her hope that their efforts would reintroduce their kind to the world, with the help of humans on the Rain Wild Council. We are then introduced to our key characters: Thymara, a young girl marked by a birth defect that gave her scales and clawed fingers; Leftrin, captain of the wizardwood liveship called Tarman; Alise Kincarrion, a woman who weds a successful local Trader named Hest Finbok in a marriage of convenience for both of them; and Sintara, a dragon who has hatched from one of the cocoons mentioned at the beginning of the book. Their stories all come together when a group of human keepers must set out on a quest to escort a party of dragons to find the legendary city of Kelsingra.

I have to be honest; I found the first half or so of this book really slow, and it took me a while to figure out why. In the end, I determined it was the characters. While they each come from fascinating backgrounds and unique circumstances, I failed to drum up much interest for their personalities. Thymara, for example, came across to me as rather bland. Normally, Rain Wild babies with birth defects like hers would have been left for dead immediately after they were born, but she was rescued from that fate by her softhearted father. As a result, most people look upon her as a mistake that never should have happened. Don't get me wrong; while these little details about Thymara gave me insight into her character and I certainly enjoyed reading about them, the issue was that I found little else to set her apart from most young outcast protagonists in a lot of the other fantasy books I've read.

I felt much the same about Alise. Her story, however, was much more interesting to me. Her relationship with Hest is pretty sad, with him being a cold and emotionally abusive ass. To Hest, their marriage is just another business contract; Alise is only useful to him for her ability to bear him an heir, and in exchange he has offered his considerable assets for her to fund her dragon research. As it turns out, there's more to the reasons why he is incapable of ever returning Alise's attempts at affection, which made my heart go out to her. And yet, her personality was so unexceptional that I found it hard to truly root for her.

I think some of this stems from the dialogue. For instance, in the book is a minor character named Greft, a young dragon keeper who very swiftly and efficiently sways the others around him to set himself up as the leader of their crew. Often in his manipulations, he says things along the lines of "Surely, you must see this is the way..." or "I am sure you can understand..." I mean, do people really fall for patronizing verbiage like that? It all just sounds so forced and over the top. I know it's a minor gripe, but I didn't like how instead of actually giving the character a charismatic personality, the writing often falls back on dialogue choices like that.

Now, the dragons, on the other hand. Not magnificent and noble creatures, these. Robin Hobb's dragons in the Rain Wild Chronicles are weak, malformed and unable to take care of themselves, relying on humans to hunt for them and clean them. From what I read of them, they also seemed petty and squabbly, and Sintara annoyed me to no end with her arrogance and posturing. But still, the dragons here felt fresh and different for me, and I liked them a lot for that.

While the beginning was slow to pick up, the positive news is that once the characters were all set up and the adventure got going, the book just got better and better. In fact, I was quite irked when it ended, just as things were at their most interesting. It was actually pretty abrupt.

I have to say that in general I don't mind cliffhangers, not if they're executed deftly and with panache. Unfortunately, I can't claim that this was one of those endings. There was no real conclusion, no cooldown, not even any real attempt to wrap things up nicely. Without warning at all, everything just comes to a screeching halt.

However, to the book's credit, the way it ended was still very effective. I already have the next book on hold at my library. And that, at least, is more than what I did for the Farseer trilogy.

This review also posted at The BiblioSanctum