Dragons are creatures of archetypal beauty and ferocity that fill all who meet them with awe. Sintara, the blue dragon in Robin Hobb’s Dragon Haven, second in the Rain Wilds Chronicles, certainly considers herself awe-inspiring. But 16-year-old Thymara, her keeper, finds Sintara difficult, nasty-tempered and deformed, with stunted wings.

Girl and dragon are part of an assortment of humans and ill-formed dragons on a quest to discover Kelsingra. The legendary city once housed a culture of dragons and Elderlings, their bizarrely beautiful companions. Natural disasters, personality clashes, passions, greed, conspiracies, blackmail and murder challenge the members of the assembly on their expedition. Some stretch and grow to meet each trial and catastrophe. Others fail; some die. All are forever changed before they reach journey’s end.

As in each of Hobb’s excellent books, characters are varied, fully realized beings, never simply good or bad. Sintara’s fellow dragons range from lowly creatures barely able to function to the large, aggressive Kalo and Mercor, a wise, golden dragon.

The humans are equally unique. They include Alise, a self-taught dragon scholar fleeing the stifled existence of her loveless marriage, and Sedric, her husband’s secretary, tortured by secrets and longings rooted in the past. Unlike those two city-dwellers, Thymara and all but one of the young people chosen to serve as dragon keepers bear the marks of their strange land, with its acidic river and treetop towns. Some keepers have scales instead of hair; Thymara has claws instead of nails. Her odd traits make her an exceptional hunter and gatherer. She must learn to develop the same self-assurance in her interactions with other group members.

The oldest keeper, Greft, attempts to change society’s rules and create ones more to his power-starved liking. In contrast with him are shy Sylve, only 12 years old, and the ebullient Rapskal. One creature is neither human nor dragon, but a living ship named Tarman, capable of making his own decisions, who plays an active role in the mission. Leftrin, a tough Rain Wilds native with an unexpectedly tender heart, captains the liveship.

The Rain Wilds Chronicles are set in the same world as a number of the noted author’s successful and popular series, though the primary characters and setting are different. Readers will have no trouble keeping up with who’s who or what is going on, since Hobb provides sufficient background on events in the previous book, Dragon Keeper. Like the best fantasy novels—or the best in any genre—Dragon Haven delivers not only page-turning entertainment, but subtle perspectives on prejudice, courage, compassion and love—in all its forms.

Leslie Moïse, biblio-omnivore, novelist and memoirist, lives and writes in Louisville, Kentucky.

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