Robin Hobb is one of my favourite fantasy writers, and she rarely lets me down. In this first installment of a new series, she returns to the rich and sprawling world she created in three previous trilogies: the Farseer, Liveship Traders, and Tawny Man trilogies. (The Soldier Son trilogy was a break from that series which appears — as far as readers know at this point, anyway — to be set in an entirely different world with no links to the other three series). While the stories told in those three trilogies are different from one another, they share common links. The enigmatic character of the Fool appears in all of them (though under a different name in the Liveship Traders), and the return of dragons to the world is an important underlying theme in all of them.
In this newest series, as the title indicates, the dragons take centre stage. Dragon Keeper is set in the mysterious world of the Rain Wilds, where the world’s only living dragon, Tintaglia, is keeping watch over a group of sea serpents who are encased in cocoons, ready to hatch into dragons. Various groups of humans have keen and contradictory interests in the fate of these young dragons, which gives the story its conflict. Underlying all the dragon-related efforts — to protect them, to get rid of them, to profit from them — is the unspoken but vital question: do humans really want to share a world with dragons? What would such a world be like?
Dragons are fascinating when they are the focus of these kind of human questions and conflicts, but less fascinating, to me as a reader, when they are the viewpoint characters. Parts of this book are narrated from the point of view of Sintara, one of the dragons, and those were the parts I found myself skimming lightly over, eager to get back to the human characters. These include Alice, the scholar trapped in a loveless sham of a marriage to a Bingtown Trader, hoping for something more in her life, and Thymara, a teenaged girl born too deformed even for Rain Wilds people to tolerate, yet saved for an uncertain life by her father’s mercy. I was totally wrapped up in these two characters, the people they interacted with and the challenges they faced. Dragons? Not so much.
Still, this book was thoroughly engaging and I can’t wait for the next volume! Hobbs is such a skillful writer; I’m amazed at how she weaves plot threads together through so many different stories and picks them up much later. I’m sad to report that so far the Fool hasn’t appeared in this book in any form, but I am looking out for him/her, because I think there are many unfinished storylines in the earlier novels that will be brought to fruition in this trilogy. I have faith in Robin Hobb!