Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Blackstone F&SF: Dragon Keeper

Last night I ventured south to attend the Blackstone Library Fantasy & Science Fiction Book Club's discussion of "Dragon Keeper" (2009) by Robin Hobb. Blackstone is a beautiful library--marble, dark timber, brass--that in some difficult-to-describe way also looks like it might be haunted. Delightful.

A good book-club!  A lot of long-time fans and readers, with lots of discussion, argument, and comparison to other works. Much to my liking. Possible spoilers below...
Personally, I enjoyed the novel, despite my slight anti-fantasy bias. Only two issues, really--firstly, Hobb's style grated on me at points, so much so that I was surprised to learn this wasn't an early novel.

The other issue I had, which affected a lot of other readers at group, was that the novel relies WAY too heavily on previous and future works. Despite being the first novel in a "new" series within Hobb's larger fantasy universe, it felt kind of hollow without having read the earlier novels (contrast this with effectively stand-alone-within-existing-universe works like Mieville's Bas-Lag novels). I also felt a little suckered for not having read at least the next book in the series, "Dragon Haven" (2010), as well; "Keeper" ends not even anticlimactically, but practically mid-sentence. There doesn't seem to be any particular narrative reason to end where it does, and at group we speculated that the first two novels of the "Rain Wild" series might be split where they are more for publishing than internal reasons.

That failure to stand alone made discussion a little difficult, as our reader familiar with the previous works naturally brought them up a lot, while those who'd read the sequel had a hard time keeping them separate in discussion (because the novels aren't separated very cleanly plot-wise).

I won't harp on too long about Hobb's style, but it really drove me up the wall. A lot of "As you know, Bob"--dialogue was frequently stilted and too-often expositional. Her general writing style also rubbed me wrong. I found myself frequently annotating "urgh" as a comment, for over-use of descriptors particularly. Even ignoring the multiple Mirror Scenes (or entrances--either way, lots of shudder-inducing and cliched descriptors), Hobb can't seem to let a noun go un-modified. One example of about 34 I underlined: "His rough hands cradled a heavy mug of morning tea. From the small sounds his keen ears picked up..." (p.446 in my epub version, emphasis mine). This kind of thing repeated throughout the book is clunky, not rich, IMHO, and gave certain chunks a very weird rhythm.

Weak style + magic= usually I'd be moving on to something else. But! There's actually a lot of good, interesting stuff going on here. Things I had written down to talk about:
  • Deformity, Handicap, and Difference: The dragons are deformed from birth. Their keepers are mutants. Excepting only Leftrin, all the "normal" human characters are social or sexual noncomformists. Heck, even the odd epistolary interludes between the "Keepers of the Birds" were concerned with deformities and sicknesses affecting their pigeons.
  • Sexual Issues: A fair amount of attention here to sexual inequality--Alise's marriage is basically an attempt to get A (dragon-studying) Room of One's Own, and then we have the entire issue of her husband's homosexualiy. One was reminded a bit of Hayne's 2002 film "Far From Heaven", actually. With dragons.
  • Ethics: In several different scenes, Hobbs seems to be bringing ethics and moral schemes to our attention. The ideas that "might makes right", that "the weak are the prey of the strong", and a sort of Randian Objectivist "selfishness is actually the best virtue for everyone" argument are forefronted in different contexts. What's weird is that they seem to be framed to show how crap they are as arguments, but only weakly so--and there don't seem to be any competing ethics spelled out.
  • Interpersonal Power Issues as Ultimately Economic/Material: Effing loved this aspect. The reader is constantly reminded that these inequalities (sexual, class, physical) are rooted in material and economic situations. The dragons' constant hunger and inability to grow strong and healthy reflects on the situation of Bingtown women and the scaled Rain Wilders; heck, even the bird keepers are concerned with pigeon health, which relies on pigeon food, which relies on pigeon funds.
There were a few other issues I was interested in but weren't much developed--the larger/historical question of the ecology and landscape here, how they've changed, for one. Also, the dragons' (and liveships') plight is connected to a kind of "disruption of history", a legacy of exploitation that put me in mind of a lot of colonial criticism and the problem of political/cultural bankruptcy that can result from knocking a single link out of the chain of tradition. (This actually throws me back a bit to "Oryx & Crake", and Crake's utterly-accurate remark that you only need to remove one generation to stop the whole line.)

We didn't get to all of these points in group, but it was really good, lively discussion. We talked about:
  • The pleasures, but particularly PERILS, of novels that require glossaries, dramatis personae, or appendices.
  • What "Percentage of a Book" this is. Sally started us at 25%, but Jacqueline was going as low as one-twelfth (0.083%) by the end.
  • Steve liked that the dragons here are actually characters, starting some dragon-characterization-comparison with McCaffrey's "Pern" and Novik's "Temeraire" series.
  • A lot of discussion of adolescence, both the dragons and their keepers having deformities that seemed to stand in for pubescent body/angst issues.
  • Jacqueline described this as fundamentally a "veiled society": it would rather obscure or repress difference than confront it directly--a very apt way to put it.
  • I was not the only one amused by a frequent misreading of Sintara to Sinatra...and then of course Bingtown can just be stretched out a bit to Bingcrosbytown.
  • Seriously though, fantasy names are pretty bad here. Nonsense syllables mixed up with sorta European (but we're not in Europe) mixed up with weird grammar things (Rain Wild River? What?), BUT at least we didn't have to deal with lots of apostrophes.
  • Lots of discussion/argument about Hest. I can't read him as a straightforward villain; while I don't excuse his actions (cruelty, vindictive possessiveness, and some marital rape, be warned), I'm also interested in the extent to which this is a product of being forced to closet himself. Lot of discussion here.
  • We also got into the deformity discussion a little bit, although like the novel we didn't come to any conclusions. Definitely interesting that so many viewpoint characters are physically challenged or different, a feature that a couple of us really liked (as opposed to generic/perfect/super-powered).
(On that last note, if you're interested, I highly recommend reading some of the back-and-forth between Peter Singer and his opponents on the question of euthanasia & quality-of-life. See for instance an excerpt on euthanasia/infanticide (jump down to "Justifying Infanticide & Non-Voluntary Euthansia") and a really good piece by Harriet McBryde Johnson, a disability rights activist, on meeting Singer & presenting counter-arguments. There's a lot of sticky emotional/metaphysical crossover with these discussions.)

I think overall I liked "Dragon Keeper" enough to mark Hobb down in my brain to read later, if I'm suddenly overwhelmed with the urge to toss myself into a huge fantasy series. They're supposedly separate trilogies/tetralogies, but based on this novel I'm assuming they're actually best read as a continuing series.

The Blackstone Fantasy and Science Fiction Book Club's next meeting will be on Monday, December 22 at 6:30pm, to discuss Ann Leckie's "Ancillary Justice", which everybody's talking about. Sally (the organizer) had already set aside a number of library copies for everyone to take at the end of discussion, which is pretty awesome. The group is also discussing attending A Klingon Christmas Carol in its last year in Chicago.

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