When I picked up Dragon Keeper, a novel by Robin Hobb, it was specifically to have a nice, mindless read during my several hours of sitting in airports. I assumed it would be, like most novels with the word “Dragon” in the title, a cheaper knock-off of Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight series. I’ve read others, by Mercedes Lackey and others: a big scary dragons meets a girl who falls in love with the creature. Basically, I expected My Friend Flicka with scales and wings. I’m here to report that I was pleasantly surprised about Dragon Keeper.
The novel is situated in an acid-filled swampland called The Rain Wilds, where dragons have all but died out and people have moved to the rain forest canopy to survive. Fifteen hatchlings were all the dragons that survived of the last clutch, and each of them born malformed and sometimes mentally deficient. They have all the attitude, and memories, of millenia of their race, but are confined to a muddy swampland, unable to fly or hunt for themselves. The dragons are huge, horribly-tempered, and largely arrogant. Their crippled condition causes them to depend on the kindness of the local humans to survive. The local community’s patience is wearing thin and is looking for a way to get rid of the dragon problem once and for all. Humans are also slowly transforming in this harsh swamp environment. Many are born with scales, and black fingernails, or with ridges on their skin. When the deformities are too severe, the human infants are left to die.
The setting is engaging, but where Hobb shines is in the interactions between the characters who populate her novel. The internal conflict is what moves the work from chapter to chapter, and causes us to enjoy the setting, and the arrogant dragons. Hobb seems to intuitively comprehend this, and it was a pleasure to read her work. I occasionally, if rarely, struggled with her sense of time. A few times, if a reader misses a cue, they will be taken back to a scene that occured years before, and which makes no sense. Generally the plot is linear, although it is told from the perspective of four or five characters. It was probably my fault: if I weren’t reading with a bad cold, on an uncomfortable airplane seat, the temporal motion of the plot probably wouldn’t have stymied me.
The novel ends at a point where I was sorry I left the second novel of the series on the shelf at home. I was surprised to find that I’d jumped into the middle of a relatively well-defined world. Hobb has written several series (perhaps 15 titles?) that take place in the Realm of the Elderlings. What she accomplished remarkably well is never once giving me the impression that I should have read several novels *before* this one. The only component lacking, I thought, was a map, to allow me to keep track of where these people and dragons were. I was pleased to discover Hobb, and her world, and am looking forward to reading more.