Thursday, 28 July 2011

Robin Hobb - The Dragon Keeper

I like dragons. They are cool and come in many forms. I’m not too keen on those Japanese long thin things, (usually called wyrms, in some tales) or the really fat ones. I like the ones who are quick, strong, acrobatic, can breathe some kind of awesome stuff that kills people and, probably most important of all, excel in mounted combat.

So while Robin Hobb’s dragons aren’t of Japanese origin or overweight, they still don’t satisfy my coolness criteria. They don’t like humans - no mounted combat, they can’t breathe anything except for having bad breath which doesn’t count; they are all underdeveloped, can’t fly are not strong and the only speed the show is when some already dead food is put in front of them.

There was one dragon at the start who was promising, but after three years of tending the young ones, she got bored and fucked off with some dude dragon she met in the local dragon nightclub. Not college material.

So that’s three paragraphs on why I don’t like the main focus of the novel. And it gets worse. I’ll start with basic grammar. There are... things in The Dragon Keeper called liveships. They are made of the casings that dragons hatch out of and are, in essence, part dragon. Let’s use the Titanic as an appropriate example. Note, the italics used the show the name of the ship. When the first liveship, Tarman is mentioned, it is written without italics. However, later on, it was written like this; the Tarman. So using my deductive skills, I decided that when the ship was referred to as a person, it was non-italicised and when it was referred to as object, it was italicised. It still seemed a pretty odd decision to make, why not just stick to one or the other, but I was so proud of myself for working it out that I thought I’d roll with it.

Simple, right? Not quite. It fluctuated a lot, especially in the middle part of the book, so it read like the author didn’t really know why they were doing it either, until the latter stages of the book where it became fixed. It’s probably down to poor editing but it looked silly and was confusing.

The next thing is another basic one that keeps coming up in writing classes all time and rears its head throughout the novel. Punctuating dialogue with the effect you want the dialogue to have is poor prose. I would have said it was a confidence thing, had The Dragon Keeper been Hobb’s first novel, but constantly for three pages during an argument between a married couple, the prose states there is tension. Firstly, it’s an argument. Secondly, the dialogue and character descriptions are actually strong enough without the added prose of, ‘by the way, did I mention there is a lot of tension in this scene?’

This prose punctuation thing has a complete melt down on page 525 where the captain of the Tarman is talking to his boat. The punctuation reads, ‘There was no response. He hadn’t expected one.’ To be honest, neither did I. The boat hadn’t said a word for over 500 pages. If it suddenly burst into monologue or song in response to his rhetorical questions, that would have been a response I wouldn’t have expected.

Despite everything I’ve said, I did enjoy a large portion of the book. I liked the majority of the characters and I kept liking them until they met each other and that is quite a talent Hobb displayed. She managed to make almost all of her characters unlikable in one go. The dragon we’ve been following becomes rude and obnoxious and every other major character shows some kind of bizarre jealousy towards another and it all gets a little bit depressing. Especially because they all seem to undergo personality transplants to get to that stage.

There is another classic line on page 427. ‘She felt like a messenger who’d forgotten the words he’d been paid to say.’ If there had been a huge deal made about the difference between men and women in the novel over the previous 400 pages, this again would have been fine but there isn’t, so it looks Alise has forgotten, in the space of one sentence, that she is, in fact, a woman.

And nearly at the end of the 553 page extravaganza, there is possibly my favourite cock up thus far. Our dear captain Leftrin starts his day, on page 521, with a cup of tea. I found this weird because his morning ritual usually consists of tar-like coffee. Even so I was still amazed when after five pages of thinking, his tea had magically become coffee! I guess Hobb thought his morning ritual was coffee too.

I’ll admit I’m not the best when it comes to picking out stuff like this, but everything above could have been fixed with a few edits and a little bit more time with a red pen.

Another thing which really annoyed me was the understating of two of the characters’ homosexuality because it was obvious from the very beginning. There is a whole flashback scene where Hobb ‘reveals’ the gayness between the two, which is totally unnecessary and ruined what was a great hook.

Near the end, there is this thing about dragon’s true names. The main dragon refuses to tell the humans her true name, (obnoxious bitch) makes a big deal about it and so none of the other dragons’ true names are revealed except for one dude called Mercor. I thought it was a mistake, a made a note in my notebook to refer back to it, but then got right to the end of the book when Mercor turns around and says, not in these exact words, ‘stop being a dick Sintara. Give these humans your true name, they deserve it.’ I realised that his name appearing earlier was not a mistake but simply the author highlighting the fact that the name thing was going to come out at the end. The whole homosexual storyline felt like it was meant to be a secret and was dragged out for over 300 pages. The name thing isn’t even hinted at until the very end and we as the readers already know all their names anyway, none of the characters react to it and the whole ‘mystery’ feels completely pointless.

All of that said, it was a great original idea with interesting characters and I will probably read the sequel. But only when it comes out on paperback.

The Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb was published by HarperCollinsPublishers in 2009. They should have positions for proof readers available soon. RRP £8.99 (Paperback)

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