Blood of Dragons by Robin Hobb

Rating 8.8/10
As flawless as a dragon with only a few scales out of place.

In Blenheim Palace there is a huge, 15th century tapestry showing the then Duke of Marlborough looking extremely grandiose, sitting on a horse leading the British Army. The tapestry is perhaps 20 feet long by 10 feet high and shows a large amount of detail. Apparently, it was worked on by thirty separate weavers, each of whom would weave six inches of the picture at a time, and worked only from a tiny charcoal sketch just showing that portion of the whole picture.

Robin Hobb's writing reminds me very much of that tapestry. Like those Flemish weavers, she works on small, often inconsequential threads in slow deliberate detail, weaving them together gradually bit by bit, and only when you sit back and consider the whole do you realize just how much she's accomplished, or how subtly and gradually the plot, the lives of the characters and the entire world of the Elderlings has progressed. In her Farseer series she took Fitz from an overlooked child to a grand mover of events, while Liveship saw her turning a family feud and the ambitions of pirates into a devastating war and the rediscovery of dragons.

The Rainwild Chronicles definitely had this quality as well. I have heard people criticize the first few volumes, (especially the first), as being slow, or featuring two dimensional characters. Personally, this was not how I felt, indeed I found myself wrapped up in the story right from the beginning, and I've loved seeing how a doomed expedition became the rediscovery of an ancient city as well as the discovery for both dragons, their keepers and the Crew of the Liveship Tarman, of who they really are and what they want.

In this final volume then, Hobb had to round things off, and present us with the finished tapestry, weaving all the previous plot threads together into an even whole and snipping off the loose ends to leave us with the complete picture, and for the most part I'd say she certainly succeeds.

Something I find fascinating in Hobb's writing is her use of the traditional "journey" structure for a fantasy story. One reason I believe I might not have had the issues with Dragon Keeper which several other people apparently did, is that I found the setup for the journey up the Rainwild River a truly compelling one. I was as eager to leave as the Dragons and their keepers and always speculating on what would be found far up the acidic river, and how the tensions between the uneasy keepers and their various dragons (all of whom like Smaug himself have quite overwhelming personalities, (not to speak of Alise and the Tarman's crew), would change, grow, dance and stretch under the rigours of the trip.

Blood of Dragons however asks the question of what will happen when the heroic expedition have found their new promised land, both in terms of what the land itself contains, and how that land will relate to the world outside. After all as Tolkien knew well, winning the dragon's hoard or overthrowing the dark lord is by no means the end of the story, either for those who have journeyed on the quest, or for the lands around.

Thus, only part of the action in the book reflects Kelsingra itself, much else reflects how the discovery of a new and almost intact Elderling city peopled by the dragons and their keepers will affect places like Bingtown, the Rainwilds and Chalced and the people who inhabit them.

This question leads to both political intrigues’ with Leftrin and the Trahorg council, Malta's desperate voyage up river to Kelsingra to find help for her dying child, and the Chalcedian's attempt to attain dragon blood to appease the Duke of Chalced.

Most of these plots are dealt with the care, skill and brilliance that have made Hobb a leading writer in the fantasy field, combining the humanity of Malta's desperation to see her son live, with the alien need to ask a dragon for help and the realization that Elderling magic will play its part. Hobb's gift for blending very fragile human and everyday tragedy with truly awesome and definitely uniquely fantastical elements is one of her main strengths as a writer, and it is certainly a strength she displays to full measure here. I don't think I can think of any other author whose plotting, style and ability manages to sustain such consistently outstanding quality for quite as many books set in the same world, I don't even believe Hobb's barrel has a bottom, let alone one she will ever need to scrape.

Hobb's style is as ever deliberate, careful and absolutely grounded in her world. She is not a poet peppering her prose with flares of flowery or obscure language; neither is she writing a cinematic epic that skips over everything bar the big speeches and bloody battles.

Hobb's style is unobtrusive, gentle and deliberate, almost unremarkable in places, and yet I know few writers who have the same ability as Hobb does to literally make me experience the world they create. I often feel with Hobb's books that I know what it is like to smell the stench of a dragon's breath, feel the sudden sting of acid water from a splash of the Rainwild River or drink foul coffee with honey from one of the Tarman's chipped mugs. This even goes down to the mundane, rarely has an author given me the sense of a world where characters eat breakfast, get bored, go to the toilet and have very normal concerns the way Hobb does, despite this being a world with dragons and sea serpents and magic. This deliberate style of Hobb’s is likely why I've seen people occasionally criticise her as too slow, though her rhythm, her careful and well-crafted prose, plane though they frequently are, are to me plusses rather than minuses.

My only complaints about Blood of Dragons are that certain elements of the plot feel under used, or that we didn't spend enough time with certain characters or situations to really derive the impact from them we should. One reason I always count Liveship as my favourite of Hobb's series, (apart from the fact that pretty much anything with both pirates and dragons is bound to captivate me), is the use of multiple characters as perspectives and the fact we're not just following one person's story as we do in the books focused on FitzChivalry. In Blood of Dragons however, I did rather wonder if Hobb was attempting a little too much since while certain aspects of the plot are most satisfyingly and completely dealt with, other aspects seemed under developed.

Thymara has been a largely passive character, which isn't essentially a problem in itself, however where in other books Hobb has taken characters from a state of passive or even actively malicious motivation to genuine growth and realization, (Malta being a prime example), Thymara just seems to sit and accept what happens, indeed Elderling transformations and magical discoveries aside I can't really say how the Thymara of Blood of Dragons is so different to the young woman we met climbing through the trees in Dragon Keeper. This is particularly notable since her plot did have the potential to include romance and her first steps into adulthood outside the dictates of her society, but in the end Blood of Dragons resolves all her romantic difficulties by default, and though for one character this resolution is an interesting one, at the same time it makes Thymara feel a little superfluous to requirements.

One problem I have noticed in Hobb's characterization of relationships is her belief (expressed in Dragon Haven), that it is always men who pursue and women who are courted, not merely on a cultural, but also on a personal level. For Althia, Malta and indeed Alise this hasn't been an issue, indeed the romance between Alise and Leftrin was more a matter of liberation than passivity, however in the case of Thymara, since her other plots such as her potential conflict with her dragon rather petered out, I did feel it left her feeling slightly under used, simply prevaricating between her two admirers (an unkind person might almost say teasing), rather than engaging in a more active, equal relationship or trying to sort matters out for herself.

That being said, the plot surrounding Hest Finbok and his unwilling journey to Kelsingra is one of Hobb's finest moments. I think Hest’s eventual confrontation with Alise and Cedric is possibly the best handling of a villainous, (albeit understandable), character I've ever seen in Hobb's writing, and is a moment when I literally punched the air, since it feels such an apt use of the character and so satisfying for Alise, Sedric and Leftrin, rounding off this tangle of relationships perfectly. What is doubly surprising is that this is a confrontation we've been anticipating right from the first book of the quadrilogy, and yet it absolutely doesn't disappoint at all.

My only issue with Hest’s plot is it feels that it should have been the end of the book, since Hest’s journey also ties into the fate of the dragon Tintaglia, and Malta's child in a careful but tightly woven fashion which will be familiar to any of Hobb's fans.

The problem however is that even after this aspect of rediscovery is resolved, there is still one matter left to deal with which felt to me slightly off, and that is the business of Selden and the duke of Chalced.

When the duke was briefly introduced in City of Dragons, I hoped finally we would get more than a one dimensional view of Chalced as this generally nasty misogynistic, slave owning, family murdering society. Sadly, no.

We have a couple of scenes of the Duke and his advisers discussing his "dragon man" and the duke's courageous daughter Chasim and her attempts to start a revolution among the women of Chalced. However when we meet Chasim  her plans have already been foiled and she serves basically as Selden's friend in adversity, even though both of them are enduring torment, Selden having his blood drained and drunk by the duke, and Chasim being raped by the duke's adviser whom the duke has given her to in marriage.

My problem here is that Chasim appears to have been introduced basically for no other reason than shock value, quite literally gratuitous violence.

While I can see on an artistic level the idea of a sweet friendship developing between two helpless captives, we just don't see enough of these two in the book, indeed I do wonder if there was more of Chasim's plot in the original series which got cut in editing.

Perhaps because this plot is compressed, I'll also say that Chasim is one instance where Hobb's usually careful dialogue and character understanding seems to fail, as the last thing any person who has been violently raped would do literally the moment after is sit down with a fellow prisoner and have a discussion about their feelings.  Chasim's introduction also to me felt as if it rather cheapened the suffering of Selden, indeed I almost feel that this was Hobb trying to show that however bad men have things (and what Selden goes through at the Duke's hands is pretty horrific), women always have it worse.

Of course it is possible I am reading gender biases into Hobb's writing she did not intend, though this was something I also wondered with her treatment of Kennet in Liveship. Even if however I am incorrect on her motivations, that doesn't stop the fact that I did feel if Chasim was to serve more purpose in the plot we needed to see more of her, and especially more of her that did not involve such brutality, since I never really got a sense of who she was.

On a structural level, the Chalced plot and its resolution, which comes at the very end also felt definitely out, indeed I was rather feeling the book should have ended before t hen and things were becoming a little static.

All being said, the final revelations of the Elderlings are very climactic and satisfying. Even the rather fun side plot about the Pigeon keepers, whose messages marked each chapter comes to a pleasant resolution, though I was a little sorry we never got to meet Eric or any of the other keepers in person in the text itself.

In general, Blood of Dragons is everything you would expect from a resolution to a Hobb series. It carries on the plot of Kelsingra, gives us more knowledge of the Elderlings than ever before, (though still leaving mysteries), and also resolves many plots in deeply satisfying ways. Even if it leaves a couple of threads hanging slightly, there's no denying it makes a beautiful tapestry out of the Rainwild Chronicles and one which should grace the wall of any fantasy reader.

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