Once, dragons ruled the Rain Wilds, tended by privileged human servants known as Elderlings. But a series of cataclysmic eruptions nearly drove these magnificent creatures to extinction. Born weak and deformed, the last of their kind had one hope for survival: to return to their ancient city of Kelsingra. Accompanied by a disparate crew of untested young keepers, the dragons embarked on a harsh journey into the unknown along the toxic Rain Wild River. Battling starvation, a hostile climate, and treacherous enemies, dragons and humans began to forge magical connections, bonds that have wrought astonishing transformations for them all. And though Kelsingra is finally near, their odyssey has only begun.
Because of the swollen waters of the Rain Wild River, the lost city can be reached only by flight—a test of endurance and skill beyond the stunted dragons’ strength. Venturing across the swift-running river in tiny boats, the dragon scholar Alise and a handful of keepers discover a world far different from anything they have ever known or imagined. Immense, ornate structures of black stone veined with silver and lifelike stone statues line the silent, eerily empty streets. Yet what are the whispers they hear, the shadows of voices and bursts of light that flutter and are gone? And why do they feel as if eyes are watching them?
The dragons must plumb the depths of their ancestral memories to help them take flight and unlock the secrets buried in Kelsingra. But enemies driven by greed and dark desires are approaching. Time is running out, not only for the dragons but for their human keepers as well.
Character spoilers for this book
So this is gong to be long and rambly because I have a lot of feelings when it comes to books written by Robin Hobb. She’s one of my favorite authors and I am emotionally vested in her world and its outcome, as well as those of a number ocharacters. Which means that even though I have a number of problems with this book, on a personal level there are things I get out if it. And it is frustrating that while this book is still good, it isn’t great, and Robin Hobb has written some a-maze-ing books. I really like the story she’s been telling with this new series (I think it’s a series? It didn’t start out being one, but that’s what it’s grown into) but I’m not as crazy about the way she’s telling it.
For approximately the first third of the book, the majority of the text was exposition in which Robin Hobb described the setting or situation or had the character narrate their internal thoughts and feelings. Only later on did there start being more of a balance between exposition and actual dialogue, the latter of which I greatly preferred and enjoyed. Robin Hobb’s a good writer and the settings she writes is rich, sumptuous, and full of details that make the world come alive. Still, given how little action there is in this book, as was also the case with the previous book Dragon Haven, the exposition-laden chapters stood out more and slowed down the pace, which made for ponderous reading. Again, only once more dialogue started appearing did I start getting invested in the story at hand, and by the end I remembered what it was about this story and these characters that made me want to read about them. It shouldn’t have taken me so long to get to that point.
Given what I just said about the characters, it now feels strange to admit that not many of them are actually endearing, at least to me. However, this was also the case with the Liveship Trader trilogy, which also used a third person, multi-cast format, and those books were my gateway to Robin Hobb, so I’m not going to complain too much. My favorite POV is still Thymara’s, this time mostly because she’s the one who gets to experience the true wonder that is Kelsingra and starts getting an idea of what shape her Elderling heritage will take. That and she’s still the same old loner, self-sufficient person she was in the first two books and I appreciate that. However, I am not OK with the way the love affair is beginning to develop between her and Rapskel. Despite her insistence that she have the ability to make her own decisions about who she sleeps with, or if she sleeps with anyone at all, he’s so cocksure about the fact that they were meant to end up together, which for him means that, of course, they should have sex. Except there’s the part where Thymara isn’t having sex with anyone because, you know, she’s worried about getting pregnant, especially given that heavily marked Rain Wilders are practically guaranteed to miscarry or give birth to beings that are barely human and have no chance in hell of surviving. Rapskel doesn’t seem to consider this a problem whatsoever, even after what happened with Jerd. When Thymara and him do sleep together and she later voices her concerns that she might get pregnant now, his response is to say well, they can still have sex one more time because it won’t matter either way, either she’s pregnant now or she isn’t ripe now, so she won’t. SERIOUSLY? WRONG ANSWER, DUDE.
Other than that, Sintara is her usual, imperious dragon self, which mean she was still fun to read. I had a hard time feeling sympathy for Alise because although I recognize she’s had a rough time emotionally, what with being stuck with a good-for-nothing husband and wanting to grow as an intellectual and expert on dragons and Elderlings, it’s frustrating to see her go about her intellectual pursuits because she believes she knows what’s best for Kelsingra and how to approach it when it’s very clear she doesn’t; the dragons are the ones who’d know what to do. Sedric is also the same person as before, which means he’s still out of his comfort zone and complaining about it every step of the way. What Carson sees in him, I do not know. There are multiple other viewpoints, including those of Malta and Rheyn all grown up now form the Liveship series, Alice’s husband Hest, and the dying Duke of Chalced who’s still grasping as hard as he can for any dragon flesh that can be obtained.
This has been the case of the previous two books in this series as well, but again, some action occurs, new developments are made, but in the end the book feels like it was one episode in an entire TV series, with maybe one resolution made and a number of threads still left hanging. Just as I was really getting invested and wanted to see what would happen next, the book ends. Just like that. The overall story being told doesn’t seem worth the three books currently published and the fourth that’ll come out next year. It feels as though two or three books could have done as good a job as four.
So I’ve complained a lot in this post, which means I might as well talk about what I really liked. I loved the continuity of the world building between this series, the Liveship Trader series, and even some of the FitzChivalry books as well. The magic of dragons and Elderlings still feels mysterious and exciting, but gradually more of the pieces are being fit together and characters learn new things about it and incorporating it into the knowledge they already possess. One thought I had is that how Robin Hobb writes about magic in this world is similar to how George R.R. Martin writes about it in A Song of Ice and Fire. In both worlds, magic is something that hasn’t existed in its true form, if at all, for many, many centuries, or even millennia. Dragons have long been gone from the world, but with their return, some magic has been reawakened and now people are re-learning its existence or discovering more about it than had previously been known. And it differs over place and time. In the Rain Wild River, Traders have been excavating Trehaug and selling magical remains for generations. Now that the dragons are back and more and more Elderlings develop from contact with the dragons, it’s clear that through the dragons’ existence, people will eventually start to understand magic as it really works. Compare this to the Six Duchies where magic still existed in the form of the Skill and the Wit but almost all knowledge of its origins and how to use it had been lost or destroyed until various events in the Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies led to a recovery of that knowledge. I don’t know who came up with that way of writing about magic first, but I have to say that I really like it and I love how the simultaneous presence of some knowledge of magic and lack of all the rest of it influences the various characters and players, both individually and how they all understand the world in which they live in.
So yeah. I appreciate this book’s existence because it’s the continuation of a story and a world’s history I am invested in, and I want to see how it all plays out and what direction the world is headed now that the newly hatched dragons are growing up and Elderlings are starting to exist again. As someone who’s an ardent fan of Robin Hobb’s first three trilogies, I have a personal attachment to this story. That being said, I do wish there was less exposition and that the story was more streamlined. Fixing the problematic romance would be nice too, especially if it’s going to continue and develop into a thing. Like I wrote in the beginning, this story has many elements that makes Robin Hobb’s books so wonderful, but the way in which it’s being told is hindering it from being as good as it could be.
Disclosure – library