At the end of Robin Hobb's Liveship Traders Trilogy, both the People of Bingtown and their kin in the Rainwilds swamp discovered that Dragons existed on their world with the revival of Tintaglia, a beautiful silver Dragon. But more Dragons also existed, in the serpents of the sea, and in the form of the Liveships that the rich Bingtown Traders sailed. The Wizardwood that the shipwrights built the liveships out of were actually the cocoons of Dragons, rich with their essence. When the ships were constructed and sailed for many years by the same family, they came to life, and their figureheads could move and speak.
The ships were unable to become Dragons, but there existed hope that the Serpents, who remembered their former lives as Dragons, could become new Dragons if they were allowed to cocoon themselves in the Rainwilds. So Tintaglia and the Rainwilds people herded the Serpents up the Rainwilds River and helped them build cocoons in which they could change form. But the Serpents, which should have cocooned in the Summer, and when they were fat with food, had to do it in the Autumn, when they were hungry and weaker. Despite being allowed to cocoon until the next summer, most of them were born strange or stunted in some way. And the Rainwilders, who expected the Dragons to be able to hunt for themselves shortly after birth, were stuck feeding these creatures, who now seem more like endless appetites and not like Dragons at all.
Sintara, one of the few Dragons to survive the process, is a blue Queen, and although she hates her malformed wings, she is the smartest and one of the strongest of the Serpent-Dragons to survive. She dreams of Kelsingra, a city deep in the Rainwilds where Dragons, Humans and Elderlings once lived. The Rainwilds Council decides it's best to get rid of the drain on their resources by sending the deformed Dragons there- but they also want the treasures that lie buried in Kelsingra, unaware that the Dragons know of the humans greed and are deliberately inventing stories of the wealth to be found there.
This is also the story of Thymara, a young Rainwilds girl who is rejected by most everyone except for her father and her best friend, a former slave, named Tats for his facial tattoos. Children among the Rainwilds are born somewhat deformed- some are born looking normal and grow deformed later, while others are born very deformed from birth- the more deformed they are at birth, the shorter their lives are, so most Rainwilders simply leave the more deformed babies to the mercy of the Rainwilds, allowing them to be killed by exposure or wild animals.
But Thymara, who was born with claws instead of nails, was saved from exposure by her father, and her mother has never forgiven either of them for this. Thymara is grateful to her father, and her claws allow her to go further into the tops of the trees to harvest food for the family. She is also sixteen, and knows she will never have children- those who are as deformed as her will only bear children with even more deformities- so no one has sought her out- Most Rainwilds women are married by eleven or twelve- since all Rainwilders have deformities eventually, having children earlier allows them to try again in the case of the birth of a deformed child who needs to be abandoned.
Thymara's mother wants her to volunteer for the job of being a Dragon Keeper, which she claims will be a chance for Thymara to have some adventure in her life. But Thymara knows that the real reason is that her mother wants her gone for good and the long and dangerous journey through the jungle is her best chance to be rid of a child that she never wanted, a child who should have been killed. And the Council is sending the most deformed members of their society for the same reason- to be rid of them.
In the end, Thymara decides to go, and joins her friend, Tats, as the keeper of a Dragon. Along with the job comes money, which she gives to her father to help him support the family- with her gone, he won't be bringing home as much food, and she doesn't want to see him starve. But joining the expedition introduces her to Sintara, who Thymara chooses to be the Dragon she cares for. She also finds herself alternately attracted to and repulsed by Greft, the oldest of the Keepers, and the most heavily marked by the Rainwilds. He can be very charismatic, but also likes to stir up trouble among the other Keepers- and his hints that they could make a new society of their own in Kelsingra, including marrying amongst themselves, concerns her deeply.
Another character in this story is Alise Kincarron Finbok, a Bingtown Trader who never expected to marry. She's red-haired and very plain, and since she was witness to Tintaglia's arrival in Bingtown, she became fascinated with Dragons and took up being a Dragon Scholar as a hobby/obsession. When Hest Finbok, one of the handsomest, well-connected Trader's sons, began to court her, she was hardly interested. She had already planned on not marrying, and he was upsetting her plans. Nevertheless, he convinces her to marry him with the idea that he will be gone for long periods of time, not demand overly much of her in the bedroom, and since his family is wealthy, she can feed her obsession for items of Dragon Lore more easily. He also promises her to let her travel to the Rainwilds at some point to study the Dragons there, who have just been hatched at the time he proposes.
Alise finds married life not much to her liking at all. Hest rarely comes to her bed, but when he does, he doesn't spend any time on her own pleasure. He just does his duty once, and leaves. He's also hardly the charming young man he appeared to be when he was courting her. He spends most of his time off on business trips with her friend Sedric Meldar, who also happens to be the brother of another of her friends. She finds her life lonely- and would almost divorce him, even if it meant having to return to her father's house, but unless she can prove that he is unfaithful to her with another woman, she is bound by their marriage agreements to stay married to him. The one time she thought he was cheating on her, she was wrong, so she is doubly bound to silence.
Until one day, after a number of years of marriage, she decides that he must live up to her agreement to let her go to the Rainwilds and study the Dragons there. He's unwilling to let her go, but she points out that it is in their marriage agreement, so why not now? Sedric supports her, and Hest gets angry with him for that and sends Sedric with her as her companion, to ease the way for her. Sedric is unhappy at being asked to go- he wants to stay with Hest, but Hest is being cold and cutting because Sedric didn't support his point of view. And Sedric is even more upset by the trip, when Alise talks to Paragon, the Liveship, and upsets him when she asks about what he remembers as a Dragon. She is more upset by the man and woman who are the masters and owners of Paragon- Althea Vestrit and her husband, Brashen Trell. The love they have for each other makes her own marriage seem horrible and stunted by comparison.
But even more startling to her is the Captain of the second ship she travels on, Leftrin. He's never married, but he is fascinated by her and quickly becomes infatuated with the "Lady" Alise. She's never had this sort of attention, and is quite flattered by it, but even though she quickly returns the infatuation, she would never betray her marriage vows. But when she arrives at Cassarick, the Rainwilds city where the Dragons are living, she attends one of the council meetings and confirms for them that Kelsingra exists somewhere in the depths of the Rainwilds, based on the scroll which she owns and has read and studied. The Council is overjoyed that this rich city isn't merely the wrong memory of the Dragons, and asks her to accompany the Dragons and their Keepers to find it.
She had planned to merely speak with the Dragons for a few days at Cassarick, but she can't stand to return home to her stifling, loveless marriage so soon, and agrees to go. And Sedric, who is not only her attendant, but also her guarantor of keeping her marriage oath, feels that he must go with her to prevent her from falling into the bed of Leftrin, Captain of the longboat- who he feels will end up in an adulterous relationship with Alise if he doesn't keep them apart. But he has his own reasons for going- if Hest won't support him any longer, he needs to make his own way in the world, and selling Dragon parts to the Chalcedian Emperor, who is constantly sick and is convinced he needs Dragon parts to keep himself alive and healthy, and who is threatening the Rainwilds people and his own merchants to get them. But even though the Hundreds of Sea Serpents have become merely seven deformed Dragons, the Dragons eat their own dead- so how can he get the parts he needs?
This is a story of damaged characters, Every character is in some way damaged, either physically, as in the case of Thymara and her Dragon, Sintara, or emotionally, like Alise, whose marriage to a rich, snotty and emotionally cruel bastard of a man has left her drained. Even many of the minor characters like Tats and Sedric, are damaged in some way, Tats by being a former slave and Sedric by being the lover of Hest. I know some people might feel that revealing that Hest and Sedric are lovers might undercut a vast amount of plot in the book- it's not revealed until late in the story. But I caught on almost immediately after Alise accused Hest of Adultery with another woman, and Hest basically bullied Sedric into confirming that he wasn't sleeping with any other woman. The emphasis on the woman part, and Sedric's reaction clued me in right away.
I had a hard time liking two of the main characters in the book. Thymara starts out very well, but kind of lost me towards the ending of the book. In a way, I could definitely see her reaction to Alise- she is angry that Alise seems to be coming in between her and Sintara, the Dragon who she chose to be the Keeper of, and because of this, she is very cutting and nasty to Alise, both in thought and deed. And Sintara, who hates both herself and the other Dragons because of her own deformed and stunted wings, and their stunted bodies and minds, plays off Alise and Thymara- Thymara because she is immune to the influence of Dragons, and Alise because she isn't and her flattery pleases Sintara- but again, this is through no fault of her own and many of the other Dragons are worse.
This is a long book, and the story barely seems to start until the book is more than half over- but the first part is necessary to reiterate what went on before the book began, and to set all the parts in place. The thing I liked best about the characters in these stories is that they are people- they possess parts that are good, parts that are bad, and parts that are pretty damned unlikeable in addition to the parts that are praiseworthy. They are not paragons, and fall prey to jealousy, flattery and can be attracted to the wrong people, or play with those people to satisfy their own egos. This makes the series fairly gritty feeling, and even though the previous trilogy, The Liveship Traders, seemed set almost in the Renaissance period, this book came across as more fantasy than the series before, possibly because of the Rainwilds as a setting.
I liked this book. Some of Robin Hobb's series just don't work for me (I found her Soldier Son Trilogy both confusing and distasteful reading), but I didn't have that problem with this one, and I really found myself enjoying reading it, though parts of it are rather depressing. I would definitely recommend this book to someone looking for an unusual fantasy. Recommended.