I have been a fan of Robin Hobb’s work ever since first reading Assassin’s Apprentice. I loved the beauty of her writing, the depth of her characterisation and that she avoided the beaten paths of most Epic Fantasy novels and took the genre into new directions, where she did lots of exciting things with it. And I think she only got better with every work she published, up to her Soldier Son trilogy which I loved even though many of her fans did not, most likely because it blithely ignores pretty much every Fantasy convention there is, and whittles down the exterior plot to the bare minimum while using the freed-up space for character exploration and breathtakingly beautiful nature descriptions – those, at least, are the reason why that trilogy is my favourite among her works.
Viewed in this light, I think that the work she embarked on next, The Rain Wilds Chronicles, marks a step backwards in her development as a writer – not because in it she returns to the world of her earlier novels (which I’m enough of a fan to rather welcome – I admit to some curiosity as to how the fate of that world, of Tintaglia and the other dragons as well as of the humans whose life was touched by them, continues) but because she returns to familar narrative territory, one of the most archetypal there is, i.e. the journey upriver that is also a journey of self-discovery for the people undertaking it.
Which is of course still a very far cry from “Peasant son discovers he has amazing powers and sets forth to save the day and win the kingdom”, and this is still very much Robin Hobb, so while I was a mite disappointed I still very much enjoyed the first two volumes of the Rain Wilds Chronicles. Back when their release was first announced, the news was that Dragon Keeper and Dragon Haven were the two parts of a standalone novel that had to be cut in half due to its length, and while those concluded somewhat open-ended, they did not cry out for a direct sequel, and it was easy to imagine the loose threads being taken up from another tangent, as part of someone else’s story.
So I was a bit surprised to read that there was going to be a third volume, but being a Robin Hobb fan I of course immediately pre-ordered the hardcover, and even read it right away, making this my first new release in 2012. Unfortunately, I have to say that this is the first book by Robin Hobb I’m feeling rather ho-hum about. Apparently, it is again the first half of something that was cut in two, and seemingly cut in the wrong place, too – the last few chapters of City of Dragons not only almost completely lose sight of all the people the novel had been following so far, it not only introduces new point of view characters that get dropped again immediately due to the novel ending, but to top things off it has a lenghty recap of events in Dragon Keeper and Dragon Haven about eighty pages before the end of this volume that would have been okay at the start of the second installment but is completely out of place coming at the end of the first one as it is. This is some really sloppy structuring/editing and definitely not what I’m used to from Robin Hobb.
While the general plot is brought slightly forward, it reads mostly like the positioning of pieces that has become so tediously familiar in much long-running fantasy series, and – more unusual for Robin Hobb – the characters do not seem to develop much over the course of this novel either. And a final niggle – as much as I admire Robin Hobb’s skills as a writer, she just can’t seem to do villains well. Prince Regal in the Farseer trilogy was of the worst melodramatic moustache-twirling kind, and was the only thing seriously marring what was otherwise a truly excellent work. Thankfully, she has avoided the “evil just for the sake of being evil, mwuahaha” kind of bad guy since then… up to City of Dragons, that is, where she presents us with not just one, but two members of the species in the book’s final quarter. The Duke of Chalced might maybe have a tiny bit more motivation than the merely evil-for-evil’s-sake Hest, but not by much and it’s all rather flimsy and conventional.
Having said all this, this is still a novel by Robin Hobb, and while I personally consider it her weakest yet, it still maintains a high level of artistry that not many writing in the Fantasy genre achieve even in their best moments. The writing is impeccably beautiful, bringing the fetid jungles of the Rain Wilds and the decayed grandeur of Kelsingra to vivid life in the reader’s imagination. Also, it is just nice to find out what happened to everyone, not just from the previous two novels, but we also meet again characters from as far back as The Liveship Traders. And, of course, it has dragons – nobody, really nobody writes dragons the way Robin Hobb does…