Observation of the week
In films, when a character is hanging off the edge of a cliff, why does the character trying to save them/going to get help always shout ‘hang on’? What else are they going to do?
Round Two With Robin Hobb
Those of you who have read Fantasy Writing Is Not Porn: Why Length Isn’t Everything, will know that I didn’t much like Shaman’s Crossing (book one of The Soldier Son trilogy). If this was typical Robin Hobb, I couldn’t understand all the fuss. However it seems (from reading reviews) that the consensus among Robin Hobb fans is that this is one of her worst books.
When I saw The Dragon Keeper (book one of The Rain Wild Chronicles) in my local library, I decided to read Robin Hobb ‘on form’. That, and there happened to be a pitiful selection of books to choose from this week. No, I don’t want to read a book based on a video game. There would be nothing worse than reading about a character losing a fight and thinking, “I wouldn’t have lost that. I’d have used the X,X,Y combo, then thrown a grenade with R2.”
Sorry, I thought you were a different author
What a difference. For a start, dragons are always a win. Having a dragon in a story always seems to guarantee that stuff will actually happen, like how the words ‘this is based on a true’ story at the beginning of a film guarantees 90 minutes of pure fiction. If you remember from Fantasy Writing Is Not Porn, my main gripe with Shaman’s Crossing is that nothing happens. In The Dragon Keeper, stuff does happen, and what’s more, we have a conflict right from the beginning of the book. The serpents have left it too long to nest, and most of them are dying before they can even get to the nesting ground, where they will cocoon themselves and become dragons.
Shaman’s Crossing, however, starts with Nevare reminiscing about the magic of the Plainspeople, in a 24 page-long chapter in which nothing happens but a lot of exposition. Yes, I guess we learn something. What I learned was that I should have bought another book.
In fact, the more I read of The Dragon Keeper, the more I compare it to Shaman’s Crossing, the more it seems as though Robin Hobb’s goal when writing the latter was to actually write a boring book. Nevare is as bland and passive a character as you could get – he’s not a troublemaker, so doesn’t do much to break the rules once in the Academy, and he’s not timid enough to be a real outsider. He just sits in the middle wondering how things have ‘behooved’ him, and worrying about his honour. Perhaps this would not have been so bad if the whole 650 page tale was not entirely about him, but it was.
That might be one place in which The Dragon Keeper instantly stands out. Third person, multiple viewpoints; stylistically it’s a very different book. The list of characters is also impressive: a newly hatched dragon, finding her place in the world; a young hunter-gatherer girl, born with scales up her spine and claws instead of nails; the captain of a river barge, who finds an expensive, but illegal, treasure that could keep him rich to the end of his days and, my personal favourite, the middle daughter of not-so well off Traders, pressured into marriage whilst wanting instead to become a dragon scholar.
The Dragon Keeper is rich with interesting characters, a new take on dragons, politics, what looks to become some scheming, and the looming threat of war. Shaman’s Crossing is full of…words. Most of them are ‘rebuke’, or ‘behooved’. The Dragon Keeper is very well paced – as well as lots of detail about the world and personal reflection by the characters, the plot is advancing at a good speed and I do not feel that narrative has been sacrificed for world building or characterisation or vice versa. Shaman’s Crossing has none of the above.
How convinced am I by Robin Hobb? Enough that, whilst only 150 pages into The Dragon Keeper, I have already bought the entire Farseer Trilogy, widely regarded as her best work.
Moral of the story
There seems to be a philosophy amongst Fantasy and Science Fiction writers that books must be long; as though instead of writing a book to be as long as the story, you should write the story to be as long as the book. Read the shorter works of Terry Pratchett, or any of Arthur C. Clarke’s books to see why short novels can still pack a lot of punch. Shaman’s Crossing is about the same size as The Dragon Keeper, yet the two are vastly different. The Dragon Keeper is rich and vibrant, filled with interest and intrigue, whereas Shaman’s Crossing seems almost vacuous.
Fantasy Writing is not porn. Length isn’t every. Plus, dragons are always awesome.
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