The first volume of a series is famously difficult to review. The author has only enough time to show us the landscape and introduce the characters, and then suddenly we're waving goodbye and waiting for the next book. All a reviewer can do, I suppose, is explain what they liked and what they didn't, what worked and what didn't, with the caveat that everything is subject to revision when the second book comes out.
Dragon Keeper takes place in Rain Wilds, a location Robin Hobb has visited before. It's a strange and fascinating place, far off the beaten track of your average fantasy, and Hobb does a good job of fleshing it out. People live in a pathless forest, with houses high in the trees and footbridges connecting them instead of roads. Many of the children there are different, born with scales edging their faces or down their spines, differences that grow greater over time. Down on the ground runs the Rain Wild River, which frightens the forest dwellers: "mildly acidic at the best of times; after quakes, it sometimes turned a deathly gray-white, and when it ran that color, it could mean a man's death to fall into it" (pp. 159-160).
Thymara, who lives in the forest, was born with claws instead of nails. The midwife exposed her at birth, as the custom of the forest demanded, but her tender-hearted father rescued her—much to the disgust of her mother. She is tolerated at best, and it's clear she will never have a husband or gainful employment.
One day Thymara goes with her father to see dragons hatch. Something has gone wrong, though, and all the dragons emerge deformed in some way; their wings are too stubby to fly, they have no tails, they are too small. They also prove unable to fend for themselves, and the Rain Wilders have to hunt for them to keep them alive.
But food is scarce, and the Rain Wilders come up with a plan to move the dragons into their own lands. Dragon herders are being hired to travel along with them, and Thymara's mother urges Thymara to apply.
She gets the job, of course, and she and the other herders, also misfits from the forest, begin to move up the dangerous river. She becomes the keeper of a dragon named Sintara, a dragon that dreams of being able to fly and to kill her own prey.
Another woman, Alise, wants to study the dragons and joins them later in the voyage. She lives not in the forests like Thymara but in the trading city of Bingtown. She has made a good marriage with a wealthy trader but her husband seems uninterested in her and leaves her alone to pursue her own interests—for reasons that soon become clear to the reader, if not to poor Alise.
Aside from Alise, everyone on the voyage seems to have a secret, or at least some sort of agenda: Sedric, who accompanies Alise as a chaperone; Captain Leftrin, who owns the boat that follows the dragons; Greft, a boy from the forest who enjoys causing trouble among the dragon keepers.
And that's really about all I can say about the novel so far, that the setting works and the characters are interesting. There is a problem, though, one that seems obvious even at this point. The Cinderella story is a tried-and-true one in fantasy, and certainly everyone can identify with the outcast who gets her heart's desire in the end. But as you may have noticed, Dragon Keeper has at least three Cinderella stories going at once: those of Thymara, Alise, and Thymara's dragon Sintara. It all gets a little tiring: Alise's unhappiness because her husband ignores her, Thymara's unhappiness at not fitting in, Sintara's desire to fly and hunt like a true dragon. And of course there are all those other keepers, and other dragons.
The language, too, seems a little tired. Hobb seems to have little faith in the amount of information we can absorb, and some descriptions, like those of the dragons' weaknesses, are repeated over and over. Sometimes things are repeated even within the same paragraph: "Tats wasn't Rain Wilds born, and she [Thymara] and her kind were not something the Rain Wilders spoke about to outsiders. Just as some of them never spoke to her or looked directly at her, so her existence was not a topic for casual conversation with outsiders. That Tats didn't know meant that most people still considered him an outsider. He truly didn't know (p. 152)."
Will all the stories devolve into cliché, with every person and dragon living happily ever after? Or is Hobb doing something different in this book? Hobb's Farseer Trilogy was interesting because it never did what you expected; the person who seemed to be the obvious Chosen One—the man who in most fantasies would become the king and rule happily ever after—made a sharp turn and went down a very different path.
Is that going to happen here, or will Hobb choose the easier ending? At this point it's impossible to say. I have to admit, though, that I'm hoping for the unpredictable.
Lisa Goldstein's latest novel is The Divided Crown, written under the name Isabel Glass. Her novel The Red Magician won the American Book Award for Best Paperback. She has worked as a proofreader, library aide, bookseller, and reviewer, and she lives in Oakland, California, with her husband and their cute dog Spark.