(2009) Robin Hobb, Harper Collins, £20, hrdbk, 553 pp, ISBN 978-0-007-27374-4
This story is set in the Rain Wilds world created by Robin Hobb which is a post-apocalypse, fantasy world, peopled by pirates, most of whom have become slavers or traders and sea serpents who become dragons.
There are people who are traders or merchants, who are 'civilised' and tattooed people who have been slaves, and Elderlings or 'marked' Rain Wilds people who can resemble lizard people with scales, claws, webbed feet and some have glowing eyes. You can go into the minds of all of them, serpents, dragons and humans as they are all intelligent and sentient.
There are also the Empire builders the Satrap of Jamallia (a hereditary title passed from father to son) and Chalcedeans, some of who covet dragon parts for their medicinal properties, and wage war on the traders and other inhabitants of Bingtown and the Rain Wild river. The Rain Wilds are a Rainforest area which provides a monopoly on an expensive perfume sap, and 'Liveships' living sentient ships made of Wizardwood cocoons from which the sea serpents becoming dragons never hatched because people did not realise they were meant to become dragons.
This story starts from three points of view: that of the serpents; who evolve into malformed dragons, one in particular, a blue queen (female) dragon called Sintara; a lonely trader woman in a bad marriage of convenience called Alise Kincarron; and a young 'marked' woman called Thymara who becomes a dragon keeper - one of several volunteers who go to help the dragons when the dragons hatch too early having cocooned too late in a bad season.
The council of the Rain Wild River traders asks for volunteers, who are given a payment and some subsistence rations, to guide the malformed dragons upriver to their promised land of Kelsingra, or a safe place to live and hunt for them until they can support themselves. Supported by a river-going liveship, three hunters, a seasoned crew and Alise, a student of dragons and her secretary, these are the dragon keepers.
There are several good strong adventurous or mild male characters including a bisexual trader, one of the tattooed teenagers sometimes in love with Thymara called Tatts, and a bullying adult with a gang, and a handsome comical semi-adult among the dragon keepers.
The dragons store the memories of their people by eating their bodies and still retain a little of their old magic. Sintara can charm Alise into flattering her and trying to do anything for her by her 'glamour', while her secretary Sedric hears only the mooing and growling of an animal. The dragons can speak direct from mind to mind to receptive individuals and each other with their thoughts. They dream of flying, while their wings are only malformed wing shapes, of hunting in fields and forests full of game, of mating on hot sandy beaches where their ancestors laid eggs. ‘Kelsingra, a land with a magic well of silver luck and power that only dragons can drink, that can fill your heart with song and your mind with poetry is their intended destination.
In one of her other lives, in another dimension long ago, Sintara can recall being a silver queen dragon, preening herself. She recalls being an entire dragon, who can push herself into the air with her gleaming, magnificent wings. In her current reality she is stunted, one wing is smaller while the other entire, too unstable to bear her weight. Even now, she and her guardian Tintaglia bear magic in their veins, a special magic to make seeing light globes and making Malta Khupris eternally beautiful young and child bearing…
The curse of the Cursed Shores is that the river turns acid, more so when it has white floods, and the people easily become ill in the humidity, coughing up blood, becoming barren, or sometimes bearing 'marked' children who are taken away and killed, or exposed and left to die.
Each novel in this saga is left on a cliff-hanger and this one is no exception with the new dragon keepers and their charges just beginning their journey.
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