Warning: Mild spoilers ahead
The Dragon Keeper is the first book of Robin Hobb's duology - The Rain Wild Chronicles. After the wonderful Soldier Son Trilogy, Hobb once again returns to the world of her earlier three trilogies — the story of FitzChivalry Farseer, the Fool and the world of the Liveships (The Farseer Trilogy, Liveship Traders Trilogy, The Tawny Man Trilogy). The Dragon Keeper in a way builds on the events of the earlier three trilogies of this world though the focus is no longer on the kingdom of the Six Duchies. This novel can be considered as a sequel to middle trilogy — Liveship Traders, though some events described in The Dragon Keeper show that the story is to some extent concurrent and largely subsequent to the last book of The Tawny Man Trilogy.
At the end of the Liveship Traders Trilogy, Tintaglia, the Dragon, makes a pact with the inhabitants of the Six Duchies, specifically those of Bingtown. In return of protecting the kingdom from the attacks of the kingdom of Chalced, Tintaglia expects the humans to assist her sea serpents up the Rain Wild River to their cocooning grounds and then look after the young dragons that will emerge from the cocoons. The Dragon Keeper opens with Tintaglia and the humans leading a tangle of serpents up the acidic Rain Wild River to Trehaug to change into dragons. The tangle is however in a bad shape when they begin to cocoon. Most of the serpents have been serpents for too long and have lost a lot of their memories. All of them are weak and exhausted. And apart from Tintaglia and the humans of the Rain Wild, there are no other dragons or Elderlings to look after the serpents and the new dragons. A number of serpents die in their cases without turning into dragons and some are swept away when the fickle Rain Wild River suddenly floods. The dragons that emerge from the cases are nothing like the majestic creatures that once roamed the skies. These dragons are stunted, with very few of their ancestral memories, incapable of flight, or even of feeding or looking after themselves. Soon only a handful survive with the humans of Trehaug and Cassarick doing their best (and often their worst) to keep them fed. Tintaglia, meanwhile who has found another black male dragon abandons these new dragons. Soon the burden of feeding and housing the new dragons becomes overwhelming. The people of Cassarick decide (with a little prompting from the dragons who want to escape the swamp of Trehaug) to move the dragons and aid them in their search for the legendary Elderling city of Kelsingra far up into the unexplored regions of the Rain Wild river. For this endeavor, they recruit "dragon keepers." This background and the beginning of the search for Kelsingra by the dragons and the dragon keepers constitute the first tale of the Rain Wild Chronicles.
The Trader's Council of Cassarick looks for "expendable" people to be recruited as dragon keepers. Thymara is one of this group employed to accompany the beasts on their journey up river to find the ancestral Kelsingra. Thymara is a child of the Rain Wilds, born highly deformed by Rain Wild standards (born with claws instead of fingernails and some scaling on her face and back). She should have been "exposed" at birth (abandoned to die), but was saved by her father. Thymara is shunned by most Rain Wilders (and is resented by her mother) and longs for acceptance. As a kid she had watched the new dragons emerge from their casings and had fallen under their spell, especially under that of the Queen Dragon, Sintara. Along with the other outcasts of Cassarick, she volunteers and becomes one of the dragon keepers and is charged to look after Sintara. Accompanying her is her childhood friend, Tats, who is a former Chalcedean slave – keeper of the dragon Fente. After the dragons and the dragon keepers begin their journey and search for Kelsingra, the story details the inner tensions and turmoil within the dragon keepers. The wily Greft, the oldest dragon keeper (of the biggest dragon, Kalo), assumes himself to be the leader of the group and has his own notions of the laws applicable to the group and how he wants the group to behave. Some of the other dragon keepers side with him while Thymara, Tats, and Sylve (keeper of the dragon Mercor. Mercor is the most intelligent of the new dragons and is implied to have previously been the sea serpent Maulkin — an important character in the Liveship Traders) range themselves on the other.
Also in the group is Alise Finbok, of Bingtown trader stock, who has devoted her life to studying dragons. Alise is trapped in a loveless and stifling marriage of convenience with Hest Finbok. Hest marries Alise to escape from his father's nagging for him to get a wife and continue the Finbok line with a grandson. Alise accepts his proposal on the understanding that he would allow Alise to pursue her scholarly interests in dragons and the Elderlings. Unfortunately for her, she falls in love with Hest and is soon rebuffed by him after marriage. The trip provides her with an opportunity to continue her research and also an escape from her unhappy marriage. Accompanying her is Sedric, secretary to Hest, her childhood friend, and unwilling companion. Sedric, who is not only Hest's secretary but also his lover, has fallen out of Hest's favor and has his own reasons for assisting Alise in her studies.
Escorting the dragon keepers and the dragons is the barge Tarman, along with its crew and captain, Leftrin. Leftrin falls hard for Alise and hence decides to accompany the expedition. His barge, the Tarman, we later learn is made from wizardwood (the hard cocoon casing of the sea serpents as they transform into dragons). Leftrin had come across a wizardwood log washed up after the flooding of the Trehaug beach while the sea serpents were cocooning. The dragon inside is dead and Leftrin initially planned on selling the log for a fortune, before deciding to keep it and use it himself on Tarman. The Tarman, because of its unique nature, is the only barge that can navigate the acidic Rain Wild River and accompany the dragon keepers.
For most of the story, Hobb follows Thymara or Alise and we come to know their backgrounds and how they end up with the expedition that accompanies the dragons in their search for Kelsingra. At times, we move away from these two to follow the other protagonist of the story, the dragon Sintara. Hobb, within these stories, also weaves in those of Sedric, Tats, Leftrin, Hest and other characters (Readers of Hobb's earlier works will also recognize Althea, Brashen Trell, their Liveship – Paragon, and Malta Khuprus). Fans of Robin Hobb will not be disappointed. The Dragon Keeper, like any of her other books, builds on strong characters who struggle against their unique environment and fate as they attempt to make the best of what circumstances have handed to them. Like in any of Hobb's other books (and which I consider to be a hallmark of good fantasy fiction), the unique world of the Rain Wilds forms the other important "character" and backdrop to the story. Thymara, Alise, and even Sintara are shaped and directed by the Rain Wilds and the traditions and customs of Hobb's unique world. The book has some amazing descriptions of Rain Wild and Bingtown customs (Alise's and Hest's wedding, for example, or the birth of Thymara) and lush descriptions of the tree cities of Cassarick and Trehaug and its inhabitants make her world vividly real. Hobb is easily one of finest and highly imaginative writers of fantasy fiction writing today.
The writing and story-telling is of the same high quality that earlier readers of Hobb's books would expect. Her characters and her world come alive and become people and a setting we intimately know and care about. The Dragon Keeper, as mentioned earlier, lays the foundation for the various characters and the expedition to search for Kelsingra. Readers of fantasy fiction who expect a spell or a magic duel on every other page will be better advised to steer clear of The Dragon Keeper (or for that matter, any of Hobb's fantasy fiction). What you get with Hobb, is not a thrill-a-minute story but a slow and careful building up of characters, their circumstances and the fantasy world. You are engrossed because you have been caught up the magic of a great story-teller and are interested in seeing how the tensions between the characters and their circumstances will reach a head and resolve in the unique world created by the author.
About the only thing to kvetch about with The Dragon Keeper is its abrupt end. We find ourselves stranded at the beginning of an expedition that everybody expects to be doomed with a dead dragon and a brewing tension between the two factions that have formed within the dragon keepers. It was later that I found out that this was originally slated as a single book. But the tale grew in its telling and in to two books. However, that still doesn't take away the feeling that it was the publisher who decided to end the book where it did and not the author. Nevertheless, the end in no way detracts from all that happens and is told earlier. Most readers, I presume, like me would brush-off the end as a minor quibble and start anticipating a return to the Rain Wilds to pick up the tale again with The Dragon Haven.