Thursday, February 9, 2012

Dragon Keeper

The quick and dirty:
Rating: 3 stars
Length: Long, but not a doorstop (493 pages)
Publication: June 25, 2009 from Harper Voyager
Premise: The story centers on three women of very different backgrounds: Alise, a young scholar of dragon history; Thymara, an outcast at home only in the tallest trees; and Sintara, a flightless dragon chasing after faded ancestral memories. The three of them are drawn together on a journey upriver to resettle the dragons in their lost ancestral home. For each of them, it's also a journey to find freedom and a place in the world despite the many dangers of the road.
Warnings: Emotional abuse in spades (both familial and in sexual relationships), non-graphic sexual assault
Recommendation: Try to find it on sale in mass market if you're in the mood for something slow-paced and detailed. If you're not normally enthralled with dragon books, try used bookstores, libraries, or borrowing from friends.

What keeps this one fun:   

Robin Hobb's worldbuilding is fascinating, pulling you into the stream of events and making you care about civilizations that lived and faded centuries ago. Seeing how the Trader city of Bingtown interacts with the rest of the world gives you a good limited-options starting point, something familiar before introducing you to liveships and the dangers of mutating if you live deep in the forest. Hobb layers the details deftly, often rooting the characters in settings familiar enough to follow but unpredictable enough to make learning how this world ticks a treat. There hasn't been any explanation for the dragon near-extinction, which is both frustrating and intriguing. I know she's written others in the same universe, but I refuse to read other trilogies just to extract the relevant backstory. The reader really shouldn't have to do outside research before picking up anything labeled "Volume/Book/Part One of the Cool New Series." 

At any rate, the dragons remember their lost glory, and not knowing exactly what happened to destroy their old cities and thriving population makes their longing for the past more poignant. 

We're shown that they once had an elegant life cycle of living as serpents, swimming upstream, cocooning with the help of adult dragons, and hatching out as dragons in their own right. Since then, this small group has been reduced almost to herd animals, unable to fly, hunt, or make contact with either other dragons or serpents. Each stage has its own set of distinct ancestral memories and patterns; it feels almost biologically logical, if you can say that about dragons, and has definite creative flair. One queen dragon hatching out a bunch of eggs that sit on hot sand has been done to death and then into the nether realms and possibly back, so this system really popped.

The dragons as fully fledged characters also work really well. Western mythology tends to have them painted as rampaging menaces, and the McCaffrey-induced (see recommendations) swing away from that has been interesting; I like seeing traditional menaces done in an unusual way. The problem is frequently that when authors decide that having dragons be evil is old hat, they make them ancient, wise, sorrowful, magically gifted, and oddly compassionate for enormous long-lived and cold-blooded creatures. The dragons become these dull sages, there to dispense wisdom (or convenient magical artifacts), and the fact that they're predators the size of houses is glossed over. Hobb does a much better job of portraying these dragons as powerful beings who can't access their own wisdom; their ethical sense is dubious at best, and they're out for their own interests. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, they feel like predators trying to reach past the narrow life they've known. They break vows, act selfishly, and see the world as their due, but you can't help admiring them for their persistence and what they could one day become.

The humans tend to be equally short-sighted and awful, which puts everyone on a pleasantly equal footing. Sedric, Alise's companion on the journey and her husband's secretary, reads as conflicted in an angst-riddled but believable way. I don't consider it a spoiler if you're given the whole dynamic the first time you meet the character, but skip down if you're worried: Sedric has been having a long-running affair with Hest, his employer and Alise's husband. Since Hest is the poster child for how to be a bastard to everyone in range, this places Sedric in an interesting position. Sedric was Alise's friend long before he became involved with Hest, and was the one who recommended Alise as a non-intrusive wife, so the affair that adds to Alise's crippling loneliness is very much in his power to end. He could even just tell Alise or talk about it openly, which would let Alise have a divorce on favorable terms, given the penalties for infidelity. The fact that he feels guilty when he learns about the abuse Alise suffers but never seriously considers stepping up to end it frames him as weak, with a surface goodness that isn't backed by actual compassion.  

On the other hand, Sedric is both financially and emotionally dependent on Hest, which makes it hard for him to contemplate leaving even in the face of emotionally abusive behavior. His highest aspiration is to live openly with Hest somewhere far away, and the gentle motives combined with cruel actions make for a morally grey figure. These shifts make him the most nuanced character in the story, and the temptation to hunt down the sequel springs largely from wanting to see what will happen to him next.

Some of the character parallels really pop; the ones between Alise and Thymara, the outcast forest mutant, feel forced, but the way Sintara's resolve to really live even if she dies of it parallels the stubborn desperation of Alise's journey is quite striking. Up until that point, I'd been mildly sympathetic to both of them, but linking their inner journeys to the one up the river with that particular do-or-die fatalism absolutely worked. It's easier to care once they've both taken that step away from the comfortable lives they knew; new situations expose their strengths and vulnerabilities in ways that were invisible while they were in a rut. 

The red pen:

The single most pressing issue with this book is the pacing. The back of the book lists Alise and Thymara as members of "the disparate group entrusted with escorting the dragons to their new home," which is wonderful as soon as it starts happening....on page three hundred. I know that authors can't control that sort of thing, but picking that text for the back was a fair choice because it's the first thing that really happens since the hatching in the first fifty pages. The setup to that point is good, but it's also repetitive and could have been lopped in half without real damage to the story. These characters spend a lot of time gazing at a wall or out the window and wondering "how did I get to this low point" or moping, which is fine in moderation but dull when it drags on in a vain attempt to generate tension. We already know what's going to happen because it's blindingly obvious that the stories will converge. When we know that Alise and Thymara are finally going to get some adventure because that's the only way to kick-start the story, their adolescent sadness becomes a lot less compelling. 

The book spends chapters on end beating home how good and sweet these characters are in the face of Horrible Sadness, it starts to come off as tiresome manipulation of the reader. This comes up for both Alise and Thymara, who are evidently in a secret Most Woeful Childhood competition. There are a few shocking revelations, incidents that manage to make me care, but "no one understands my dreams" is high on the list of stereotypical life tropes, never mind fantasy ones. Parental relationships are hard to write, and some parent-child angst can be realistic. The situations of Alise and Thymara seem much too similar, however, which exacerbates the pacing problems; being repetitive about the same issues in both character arc really bogs the story down. Alise isn't attractive enough to snag a rich husband, her father is indifferent, and her mother borders on hostile because of her disappointment. Thymara is seen as unattractive and can't get married, her father loves her, and her mother is hostile because of her disappointment. Mothers tend to be either up on a pedestal or ground into the Evil Dirt of Evil in fantasy. Disappointingly, this book stuck to the formula. 

With the exception of Sedric and a merchant who only appears in one scene, all of the characters' morality is drawn in thick, uncompromising lines. Alise, Thymara, and Leftrin are good people because they believe in dreams and freedom and being fair to people. Both major mother figures in the story are bad because they're disappointed to their daughters and thus spiteful over things that really aren't anyone's fault or even open to outside control.

Hest, Alise's controlling husband, is flamingly awful because....I'm not convinced that he has redeeming character traits at all. The mothers only debatably do, but Hest is emotionally abusive almost all the time, physically abusive when it suits him, and skirts the very grey edge of being a rapist in both of his relationships. All he needs is a mustache to twirl to finish the one-dimensional villain checklist. In general, even people who are completely horrible in parts of their lives have redeeming traits on some level. Hest, in contrast, is okay at first until his big "I have manipulated that little lady and it's hilarious" speech ten pages later. And that's the first time we meet him. Good villains can make a story stand out amid hundreds of others, and morally ambiguous characters like Sedric add depth, but having a character do the equivalent of kick puppies every other scene just to establish his evil credentials gets old really quickly.

Finally, and most disappointingly, the climax just doesn't mean much. The plot finally drew some interest in what was going on, and then I turned another page and hit the end of the book. It sets up tension for later, but it registers as a minor shock amid plot twists that felt more like hiccups. At the end of the first book in a series, you need to see either a strong resolution with hints of future conflict or some sort of cliffhanger that makes the next book enticing. It's possible to blend those, or only do one and come out with a strong finished product, but this really did neither. The tension boils down to "well, this character about whom we don't care could....die? Or possibly not?" There's not enough emotional investment to make these characters important, which makes it a lousy cliffhanger, and as an ending it comes across as a slightly more tense version of the last two hundred-odd pages. Some long-running arguments get more heated, and a dangling threat finally materializes, but there's no real meat to it.

Interestingly, my internet hunt indicated that this issue may actually be part of the chain between author and publisher. Hobb originally wrote this and the sequel as one book, but the publisher had her split it in two for length reasons. This makes it more understandable, but even so, this is five hundred pages. If I don't care enough to rush out for the sequel based on the book's own merits, odds are I won't read it unless it's a present. It's not unusual for me to go through 600 pages on a quiet day, but length for length's sake is neither impressive nor fun; it takes great control to make every page count. 

On whole, this book has truly creative worldbuilding and rich potential for a longer story, but taken on its own the work is repetitive and not great with nuanced characterization. If you have a special interest in dragons or in Robin Hobb's other work, then it's probably a solid bet to go buy new. If not, put this one on the rainy day list and keep an eye out at the library. I recommend reading through page fifty and then skimming until page three hundred if you're having trouble focusing. 

Prospects: The sequels, Dragon Haven and City of Dragons, are already out; the most recent was released in February. Since Robin Hobb tends to write in trilogies, I'd bet on this either ending at book three or continuing on to book four, given that book one is now taking up both of the first two volumes. 

Enjoyed this one? Try: 
~The early Dragonriders of Pern books by Anne McCaffrey. I'm particularly partial to Moreta, but Dragonflight and the Dragonsong trilogy are also good. This series is the bedrock of how most modern fantasy writers create dragons that bond with humans.  When you see telepathic communication between dragon and rider, the aforementioned clutch of eggs hatching on sand, people riding on the dragon's back with a special saddle, or the two being closely linked as a pair both in battle and out of it, odds are the author was partly inspired by Pern. 
As my delightful friend Baking Boss puts it, "thank you so much for specifically recommending the EARLY McCaffrey books. Because seriously, her later stuff gets weird. It's like when she wrote them she just sat around with her previous novels, a picture book of dragons, and an enormous bag of weed. "

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