Robin Hobb

Rain Wild Chronicles, Book 2

Voyager (2010)

ISBN: 978-0-00-734651-6

Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack, April 2010

I’ve been a Robin Hobb fan for some time; in fact, since she was writing as Megan Lindholm.  She’s consistently written high quality and enjoyable novels, and this one may well be her best yet.  It is part of a series, and will have most meaning for those who’ve read the previous novel, The Dragon Keeper.

In book one of the Rain Wild Chronicles, The Dragon Keeper, a new generation of dragons was born.  It soon became clear that they were sickly, some physically, some mentally, and some both. They were not what their human helpers had dreamed of. Before too long the costs of keeping them became a burden, and their Rain Wild hosts found themselves seduced by the idea that the dragons could find the long lost city of Kelsingra. It was an easy dream to believe; if it was true, the rediscovery of the city could bring great riches to the Rain Wilders.  If it wasn’t true, then the inconvenient dragons would likely die on their quest – along with the outcasts recruited to care for them on their journey.

So the dragons and their keepers embarked on a journey upriver. They were accompanied by Alise Finbok and Sedric Meldar. Alise had dreamed all her life of dragons, and expecting to be an old maid, had turned herself into a scholar with expertise in dragons.  When she found herself in an unhappy marriage, she took refuge in ever deeper scholarship. Sedric is her husband’s secretary, and unknown to Alise, his lover.  Hest sent him to accompany Alise as punishment for displeasing him.  Both will find this journey freeing in ways they had not expected; both will find new depths in themselves as well as, possibly, new love. This second novel is the story of the trip upriver once out of the reach of “civilisation”.

This is a really compelling and absorbing novel. Once you start it, you’re likely to find yourself thoroughly caught up in it and eager to keep reading until you finish it.  A lot of that comes from the complex relationships of a substantial cast, but the quest itself is also important.

The cast consists of three groups, who over time start to blend together. First, there are the Dragon Keepers; these are the mutant outcasts who have been recruited to provide physical care for the dragons on their journey – help with grooming, with first aid, with feeding. Second, there are the crew of the liveship Tarman and the hunters. These have been sent to accompany the dragons and provide a degree of professional support – transporting some supplies, hunting food as they go along, and so on. They are also tasked with mapping the journey, so it can be retraced later if Kelsingra is indeed found.  And onboard the Tarman is the third group – Alise and Sedric.

Initially these three groups keep themselves quite separate. The Dragon Keepers know they aren’t expected to survive the journey. Some blindly believe they will, some see it as a way to start a new life with new rules.  There are some strong internal struggles in this group; some struggles reflect the conflicts of their dragons.  Others are more personal as relationships are formed and tested, and as different standards of behaviour and different goals emerge.  The crew of the liveship stay apart from them. They too know that the Keepers aren’t expected to survive; but *they* fully expect to eventually turn back and survive. They’re professionals, with years of experience, and a group secret or two. They’re not interested in getting involved with a bunch of young, inexperienced Keepers who aren’t likely to live long. And initially, Alise and Sedric also stay aloof. Rich and aristocratic, they’re a class (or two) above any of the others, and must maintain appearances.

It isn’t long before these divisions start breaking down. First individuals start to sympathise with and care for others from other groups; then events force them to work together; and then secrets start spilling out left, right, and centre. Hobb does a great job of depicting both the conflicts and the things which bring different people together.  It’s a highly sympathetic portrait of both groups and individuals at a time of change, and it’s subtle enough to be very fascinating. This is further enhanced by the dragons. They’re a group unto themselves, and their internal conflicts and their relationship with “their” humans is a strong thread throughout the novel.

It is true that Hobb is perhaps a tiny bit predictable in some ways – none of the really sympathetic characters die or have anything very bad happen to them, while some of the nastier ones get their comeuppance in no uncertain terms. Hobb isn’t usually this predictable, and it surprised me; but in a way this fitted the very warm and positive tone that ultimately suffused this novel.  And this is a very small criticism of a very strong novel.

I assume that there is a third novel to follow – there are some loose ends, and in any case Hobb tends to favour trilogies. I’m eager to read it. However, this novel ends in a fairly complete way – you could leave the story to rest here if you wanted, and there would still be a strong sense of satisfaction and a fair degree of closure.  This novel is highly recommended; I’m sure anyone who’s read The Dragon Keeper will have been waiting for it, but it has a lot to offer new readers as well.  Hobb is a fine writer who maintains very high standards, and continues to offer complex characters, interesting stories, and compelling narratives.