The Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I hesitated before I bought this one, as I've found Hobb's last two trilogies overstuffed with words and lean on story and characters, but in this one she seems to be back in fighting form. Right from the get-go you meet a cast of fascinating, fleshed out characters, each of whom is the hero of his/her own story, but not all of whom can be the hero of Hobb's.
There's Alise, the Trader bred woman from Bingtown who's resigned to becoming an old maid. She's not beautiful, nor does her family have much fortune, so she's applied herself to scholarship of dragons and Elderlings and this, she feels, will keep her amused as a spinster. Then there's her suitor, Hest, who sees her as an ideal life partner. He offers her the chance to spend his money on her library if she'll provide him with an heir and keep house. Too bad she develops feelings for him. He's not interested in people of her gender.
Leftrin, the captain of the liveship, Tarman, isn't above trading on the black market if it'll earn him good money. Early on in the book he makes a deal that could ruin him if ever discovered, and he must bind his entire crew to him for life in a bid to keep anyone from leaking the information. He'd be easy to hate, but by the end of the book, he's shown a side of himself that one can't help but admire.
Thymara is Rain Wilds born and bred, with claws instead of fingernails and scales all down her back. Her father made the scandalous decision to retrieve her after the midwife left her in the wilderness to die. Hated by her own kind and forbidden to ever mate, she must decide whether to respect the society that's brought civilization to her part of the world, or to try to do better for herself, regardless of the consequences.
These are the game pieces Hobb puts on the board, and she gets them interacting and playing off each other in good time like the masterful writer she is. Things I'm wary of as this series goes on: repetitive conflicts that need not be repeated. I.e. Fitz's issues with his ward in the Golden Fool series. He keeps on not doing anything about the kid, the kid keeps screwing up, etc. etc. It's annoying. Or even more irritating is when Hobb uses a break between books to cut out interesting conflict, i.e. Dutiful deciding he really does love Elliana between books two and three of the Golden Fool series. His divided heart was interesting, why kill it when it can produce such great drama?
I am hopeful, though, that this series avoids all of these issues and just gives a cracking good story. So far, so good - though I must warn you, the end feels like an arbitrary break. Be ready to buy the next one immediately if you invest in the first.
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