Book Review: Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb (book one of the Rain Wilds Chronicles)

Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb art by Jackie Morris

Day the 2nd of the Plough Moon

This is the first book by Robin Hobb that I’ve ever read, and it was a treat! I am always a little suspicious of “high” fantasy (although we could be here all day trying to define exactly what counts), which is probably why it’s taken me so long to read anything by this author. However, I’m really enjoying her writing and she has a backlog of about thirty books! Hooray!

Now, as far as I can tell nearly all of Robin Hobb’s books are set in the same world, but they are handily grouped into quartets and trilogies so that it is possible to jump in as I have done. The advantage of this is that the world in this book felt very established. A lot of thought has clearly gone into the basics: geography, economy, politics and history. This is evident without being something that sidelines the plot: the world is just ticking over in the background, as worlds do. There are cities in the trees, political upheaval abroad, merchant towns and riverpeople, and they all merge and fit without having to try to be convincing. It’s also nice when fantasy writers have clearly thought about practicalities like, for instance, contraception. It makes me happy. And also, I like reading fantasy worlds that aren’t thinly-veiled Europe.

The point-of-view changes quite often, and was done in a way that was exciting rather than confusing. The characters themselves I found a bit tricky at times, but mostly I warmed to them. They’re all very much products of their world, which is again something that I like in fantasy. One of the point-of-view characters is actually a dragon, which was really fun! I did spend quite a bit of time yelling at some of the characters (cough Alise and Sedric cough), but only because I cared about them and I want them to be happy damnit! The cast was too big to mention everyone, so a quick favourites list: Thymara, a Rain Wilds girl who should have been killed at birth due to her scaly deformities, fiercely independent; Alise Kincarron, a scholar of dragons trapped in a loveless marriage; Rapskal, an endlessly cheerful Rain Wilds boy; Erik and Detozi, pigeon keepers of Bingtown and Cassarick respectively, who we only meet in letters; Tarman, a liveship; Sedric Meldar, something of a dandy…

The plot itself is rather slow moving, and it does not speed up. Indeed, this book finished just as I was really getting my teeth into it! That’s not to say that it was unenjoyable, just that it was steady and built over time. The writing is really lovely, and there are three more books in The Rain Wild Chronicles so I’m interested to see what Robin Hobb does with the foundation she’s built here.

Rating: Read this book, and imagine you are a great jeweled serpent gliding beneath the sea…

Book Review: The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

The Queen of the Tearling

Kelsea Glynn sat very still, watching the troop approach her homestead.

I picked this up thinking “Oh this seems like a reasonably straightforward, returning sovereign type fantasy thing”. I was very happy to be proved wrong! It begins much in the ‘returning-sovereign-will-save-the-land’ vein, in a seemingly high fantasy world with the rightful heir to the throne (Kelsea Glynn) having been raised in a cottage in a wood somewhere by Carlin and Barty Glynn. A troop of soldiers arrive to take her to New London to be crowned, and then… Well, then everything flies wonderfully off the hook. Not so abruptly that it’s jarring; but we slowly realise that no, this is not a typical high fantasy story. It doesn’t actually look as though Kelsea is even going to make it as far as New London, let alone get crowned, because the Regent (her uncle) has formed an alliance with the Tearling’s scary neighbour (Mortmesne) and is sending assassins after her. There are killer hawks! There are guild assassins and bits of magic and a sort of highwayman bandit type who might be helpful.

Kelsea is also realising that she has been consistently lied to about, well, something… She does not know what. And that she is lacking a lot of experience and knowledge. And that her guards are lying to her as well. She’s a fantastically tenacious protagonist, who starts out with a good knowledge base but little experience and then learns really fast because it’s learn or die and Kelsea has decided that she’s not going to die before she even gets to her throne. The scene when she does finally get crowned is exhilarating and the story doesn’t end there!

The worldbuilding is also excellent – I could babble about it for hours. I’m going to avoid that though (because spoilers) and just say that it’s one of the most interesting fantasy set-ups I’ve seen in a while. The politics all weave together with the history and the brutality of feudal-ish lifestyles and the tension between the state and the church. Excellent, so excellent. A fantastic story about a new ruler coming into power, set against a brilliantly conceived world – I am eagerly waiting for the sequel to come back to the library.

Rating: read this book. Aim to be half as hardcore as Kelsea Glynn.