Robin Hobb's Dragon Keeper is the latest entry in the series of books that started with the Farseer Trilogy and followed with two other trilogies. Although it follows the first nine books chronologically, Dragon Keeper takes place in a new location - the remote backwoods of the Rain Wilds.
Dragon Keeper begins with the hatching of hundreds of new dragons - the first such occasion for centuries. This event should be the dawn of a new era. Not only are dragons returning the world in numbers, but this time they'll be befriended/shepherded/loved by humanity.
Unfortunately, nothing goes to plan. When the dragons hatch, they do so as malformed monstrosities. Their wings don't work, their bodies are stunted - even their racial draconic memories are fuzzy.
Equally unfortunately, the book doesn't quite go to plan either.
Dragon Keeper is told through a series of different perspectives - mainly Sintara (a dragon), Thymara (one of the Rain Wilds' many semi-mutated hillbillies) and Alise (a neglected, upper-class housewife) and . All three are united by by the book's theme - they're all unappreciated, unempowered and out of place. Sintara should be a powerful dragon queen, but can't even fly. Thymara is a skilled huntress at sixteen, but, due to her accelerated mutation, her culture demanded that she should have been left out at birth. Alise is an amateur scholar, but is essentially shut in by her frosty, emotionally-abusive husband.
All three characters are thrown together in their quest to resolve the dragons' future. As Dragon Keeper progresses, they discover that, perhaps, they aren't quite as worthless as they thought.
Dragon Keeper is exactly the sort of character-driven story that readers have come to expect from Hobb. Readers expecting swordfights and fireballs won't find them here - the action here takes place as internalized emotional struggles and behind-the-scenes political manipulation.
The problems come from unexpected directions.
First, the book is littered with odd redundancies - either a strange style choice from the author or a bad oversight from an editor. The omniscient narrator will make a point, only to have it repeated (verbatim) by one of the characters. This happens so frequently that, as a wild guess, it feels like a character was removed or added into the book at the last minute. It is, at the very least, distracting.
Secondly, and my main problem with the book, is the unfortunate, hopefully-accidental, homophobia. Robin Hobb unfortunately selects a pair of gay men as the book's villains - the ringleader being Alise's husband, Hest.
Hest ignores and abuses Alise solely because he's not interested in women. Because he prefers men, he's not attracted to her and alienates her. As Alise grows to realize her own value, she does so because people treat her in a way different to Hest. She starts to feel attractive and intelligent because another (straight, clearly) man flirts with and listens to her - unlike Hest. Hest's disinterest is the main cause of feelings of inadequacy.
This is a cheap, lazy excuse for Hest's unconscionable behavior - as well as an offensive one.
While Hest's homosexuality is used to explain his abusive behaviour towards his wife, the book's other villain, Sedric is much sneakier. He's slightly more empathetic, but only in that he's treacherous and slimy instead of openly cruel. Still, everything he does wrong is, again, rooted in his sexuality. Sedric steals, plots and connives against the female characters in order to preserve his hidden life. In a more progressive book, he could easily be a sympathetic hero. In Dragon Keeper, this makes him the villain.
It is disappointing that a book intended to build empathetic, female characters also utilizes such a lazy, unprogressive view of sexuality. Robin Hobb has created a world filled with complex characters and complicated storylines. Dragon Keeper has the makings of another excellent book, but is undermined by unfortunate, unprogressive choices in character motivation.