This is the fourth and final volume in Robin Hobb’s Rain Wild Chronicles – or rather, it is the second part of the second novel, a novel which (like the first one) would probably have been much better served and definitely been much more enjoyable if it had been published in one part. After City of Dragons ended on a rather weird point – basically, a recap of what had happened before which would have made much more sense at the beginning of a volume than at its end – Blood of Dragons throws the reader in medias res, and even with Hobb’s wondeful skills at memorable characterisation, at least this reader had to struggle somewhat to remember who was who and what they had been up to in the previous volume.
I liked this somewhat better than City of Dragons, and am reasonably certain that I would have not been quite so disgruntled with the previous novel if I had read it together with Blood of Dragons, either as one novel or immediately afterwards – in retrospect, I should have just waited until all of it was released before starting reading, but it is hard, if not impossible, for me to resist the lure of a new Robin Hobb novel. Anyway, and even so, I am not as enthusiastic about the complete novel (and, I suppose, about The Rain Wild Chronicles in general) as about her previous work. It is hard to put a finger on the reason for that – the descriptions here is still wonderful, the atmosphere of the Elderling city where most of the novel takes place are breathtaking, evoking both the decay and the former glory of Kelsingra in slow, sensuous prose; the characters are engaging as well as realistic, Hobb makes us genuinely care for what happens to them (however, I remain unimpressed by the villains, but that is really just a minor quibble).
And Robin Hobb’s dragons are as splendid, as arrogantly glorious and as gloriously arrogant as ever. Overall, we have been closer to the dragons in The Rain Wild Chronicles than in any of the previous novels of Realms of the Elderlings, and while that invariably has led to a certain familiarity and them appearing more like everyday creatures and less like transcendent beings of legend, it has not really diminshed their mystique – even though she gives some of them (namely, Sintara and, of course, the incomparable Tintaglia) their own point of view chapters, Hobb manages to retain their essential strangeness and always makes their distance from humans felt even as she shows us the inner workings of their minds.
So where does that nagging feeling of dissatisfaction that persists even after turning the last page of Blood of Dragons come from? It is a very enjoyable novel, mind you, but I just do not feel myself moved by it in quite the same way as I was by all of Robin Hobb’s novels prior to The Rain Wild Chronicles. My theory is that my own lack of enthusiasm mirrors that of Robin Hobb, that there is a certain exhaustion about those recent novels because their author has just grown tired of most, if not all, trappings of Epic Fantasy. This is of course pure speculation on my part, I know nothing at all of the actual state of mind of the actual Robin Hobb – but the impression that I am getting from this and previous novels in the current series is that she just can’t bring herself to muster much interest for any standard fantasy tropes, and that in conesquence her novels still shine as brightly as ever where she manages to disentangle herself from them – in her descriptions of landscapes and cities, her characters (apart from the villains, that is) and her entirely original take on dragons – but feel stale whenever they get tied up in the demands of the genre – which is pretty much every time the plots steps into the foreground. This is most striking at the end of the novel, when the dragons attack Chalced to overthrow its ruler and rescue one of their elderlings – surely, that would have been a high point in every other Fantasy novel, a glorious moment with the dragons fighting for their future and reclaiming their place in the world, which every other author would have described at great length and with great gusto. Robin Hobb, on the other hand, barely describes it all, keeps most of it offstage and spares the rest only a very cursory description – it’s like she just couldn’t be bothered to waste her time on all that traditional Fantasy paraphernilia and would much rather be doing something else, like exploring the relationships between her characters. And I even agree with that, but it makes it somewhat hard to see why all the battle-and-glory stuff is there in the first place.
Again, Blood of Dragons is an excellent novel, as the whole Rain Wild Chronicles are excellent – I just don’t think that they are up to Robin Hobb’s usual standards. With the Soldier Son trilogy she left conventional Fantasy far behind her, and it seems that there is not really any way back. In the light of that, I’m a bit torn about the news that there are apparently going to be more novels in the Realm of the Elderlings series – on the one hand, I think there are still a lot of open threads, and I’d love to know how things continue in that world now that the dragons have returned in full force. On the other hand, I would also love to see Robin Hobb explore new ways of writing Fantasy, like she did in Soldier Son. Of course, there is always the chance that she manages to do both at once and take Realm of the Elderlings in completely new, unexpected directions…