Main Plot: 3
Spoilers: Some spoilers
Audience Assumptions: No familiarity
This is one of my older rants from a few years ago done up into a review. At the time, my main concern was just venting about how frustrated I was by this book, but because I often don’t get much time to read these days and the long format of books makes it harder to consume them in the same amount of time as other narrative media, I’ve decided that I wanted to get what I could out of this novel. If nothing else, hopefully it will encourage you to spend your valuable time on better books — unless you feel you could get something out of reading it.
Part One: Never Trust Goodreads
Yeah, call me lazy, but finding a good book these days is difficult. Books are easy to create, at least relative to other narrative media, because they only require one creator to sit down on a machine that most people have access to these days and write out a story. Visual and auditory components are not necessary, you don’t need special training outside of what most people learn in school, and the costs are exclusively time-based. Creating a piece of media that takes as long to consume as a book, like a medium-length video game or a short television series, requires nearly as much writing as a book in terms of plotting, scripting, and story-boarding, but also has other components on top of that. And while you can self-publish on any platform, something that’s simply composed of bare-bones text is by far and away the cheapest and easiest to publish.
That’s not to say that making a good book is easy; because it can’t rely on much other than its textual skeleton, making a book solidly good might be more difficult than creating any other quality media. It’s certainly a lot harder to convince other people that your book is worth reading when it’s floating in a glut of other texts.
Our attitude toward books doesn’t help, either. Books have a nostalgic holiness to them rooted in a fairly long-standing tradition, especially in the West, of written language being seen as the main gateway to education. Writing is a profound invention whose value cannot be understated, and books as an accessible introduction to reading written language is valuable. However, I feel that value is somewhat restricted to childhood; after a point, reading more won’t give you a bigger vocabulary or a clearer insight into the human condition, especially if what you read has bigger flaws than the other narrative media you surround yourself with. After someone becomes basically literate, it’s much more conducive to their growth to help them understand films like Citizen Kane or Psycho than it is to make them read Harry Potter for the fifth time. Harry Potter is fun, but it’s kind of like junk food — you can eat it once in a while and you can use it to get someone who’s starving onto a better diet, but it’s not the sort of thing you should eat at every meal.
Fictional stories can be nutritious and stimulating, feeding your understanding of people and the world in a way that’s also entertaining. Fiction might even be uniquely predisposed to delivering difficult messages because we get so easily invested in it. Invested stories provide narratives that are simple and gift-wrapped for human consumption, unlike most real events which lack the same straightforward components and digestibility. It’s difficult, but we’ve seen countless films, short stories, novels, and, in recent years, even comic books, video games, and television balance engagement with depth.
Dragon Keeper is not the sort of book you would come across while looking for, shall we say, intellectually stimulating novels. You’d probably have to scroll past several dozen pages of books with the tag “intellectually stimulating” before you came across anything with “dragon” in the title. However, it’s one of the first books that comes up when you look for solid, well-written novels about dragons.
Dragons are a weakness of mine, as anyone who’s read my Game of Thrones reviews might have guessed. It doesn’t really matter if I loathe the characters, think the premise is stupid, or can barely read the writing; if something has plentiful dragons in it, I will be interested. Even if the dragons aren’t plentiful, I’ll probably still make it through the whole thing. However, as with most genres and genre components, it’s a lot easier to find books with dragons in them than to find high-quality examples of books with dragons in them. Hence, scrolling through Goodreads, Amazon, BestFantasyBooks, and whatever else comes up in a Google search for “dragon books.”
Among the lists of popular fantasy books and series, aside from children’s books and the dragon-containing series I already knew, the Rain Wilds Chronicles series kept appearing, and often high on those lists. I had never heard of it or its author before, or if I had, I’d forgotten them, but the premise was interesting enough that I picked it up along with a bunch of other dragon fantasy novels. I was especially excited about it when I realized it wasn’t about princesses or castles or wide open fields and European forests but a morose, acidic swamp.
Part Two: An Introduction is Not a Finished Book
To the book’s credit, its world is vibrant and creative, and very unlike any other high fantasy story I’ve ever read. The setting, though often unpleasant, cases a distinct mood to everything else in the book, especially mirroring the sickly nature of the characters and the depression of the populace. The book opens with an intriguing, but exhausting, even disturbing premise.
After centuries, dragons have finally returned to the land. The only existing dragon, Tintaglia, has hatched from a wooden cocoon and is rallying the larval sea serpents to make their traditional upriver migration to metamorphose into more dragons. However, in the time since the dragons and Elderlings (elf-like beings with a connection to the dragons) disappeared, the environment has changed, and the serpents have grown old and weak. The humans band together to help the one existing dragon aid the serpents in their migration, but the creatures hatch out deformed, none of them able to fly. Tintaglia abandons them, leaving the local humans to feed and care for the young dragons. After several years and little growth, the humans deem the dragons a drain on their food stores and potential hazards. They make a deal with the malformed dragons to take them upstream in search of an Elderling city they recall from their ancestor’s memories. Human hunters are paired up with dragons to feed the weakened creatures and tend to them on their journey upriver, most of these hunters being disfigured Rain Wilders, people with claws and scales whom the local population shun. There are also a few other characters set to guide the dragons on their journey, including a historian, her attendant, and a crew of a river barge.
And, to be honest, that’s it. That’s the book. They don’t even get going on their journey until about three-quarters of the way through. The plan to take the dragons away isn’t a major plot point because, well, it’s revealed in the first couple of chapters. Beyond that, the plot is much what the reader would expect, except it ends before much of anything happens.
The primary issue with the book is it’s structure; this is the first in a series, and it very much feels like a much larger novel cut into pieces with little restructuring. The plot is incomplete in every way, shape, and form. I know my own stories tend to have plot-related issues and a slow start, but to give you some indication of how incomplete this book’s plot is, you can read the back cover summary, and it’s more exciting than nearly everything that happens in the entire actual book. The back is bold enough to claim that “many lessons will be learned — as dragons and tenders alike experience hardships, betrayals… and joys beyond their wildest imaginings.” Lies, all of it! The inciting event doesn’t happen until halfway through the goddamn book. Do you know what it feels like? It feels a lot like the pilot of a television series in the way it’s paced. PILOTS SHOULD NOT BE TEN HOURS LONG.
I can see what this book is trying to do, and it reads very much like the first in a trilogy that really should have been trimmed to fit one long book. Without even small climaxes within the story, the pacing stagnates quickly, a trend that isn’t helped by lengthy, long-winded chapters. I would estimate that at least two-thirds of the material in this book, and two of the full character perspectives, could have been cut without much or any impact on the story itself.
Fantasy novels are often heavily padded, especially those involving multiple perspectives, and while few can justify the extra pages, a good many can use that space to expand upon their world or characters, even in ways that aren’t directly affected by the plot. George R. R. Martin, J. K. Rowling, J. R. R. Tolkien, Anne McCaffrey, and others do this extensively, and it’s part of the allure of thick, heavy fantasy novels. The only problem with that is that buffering your story’s minor elements requires that the plot be complicated, the world expansive, or both, in order for those moments to feel rewarding and captivate the reader. Not all books have to be a journey from point A to point B — they can amble. But Dragon Keeper doesn’t feel like it’s ambling. It takes place in a relatively small, restricted world and as I’ve mentioned, the plot is missing its latter two-thirds. So, in order to expand the reading material, the book shows scenes that don’t further our understanding of the plot and are the filmmaker’s equivalent of shooting a character walking through a room, opening a door, closing the door, and walking through a different room for no real reason. That, along with some genuinely terrible dialogue, especially on the side of any antagonistic force in the novel, makes large chunks of it a snore to read.
Part Three: Half-Decent Run-Up Followed by an Immediate, Skin-Scraping Face-Plant
It’s told from multiple points of view, which I normally love regardless of how well it’s done, but the execution of this tactic is dependent on having at least interesting, if not fully fleshed-out characters. My god are these characters dull. I found about one person I liked in this story, and he’s a minor side character who appears about halfway through and only in one of the main character’s chapters. Aside from him, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a book filled with more irredeemable and somehow uninteresting people.
There are five main characters who get their own viewpoints, which isn’t really all that many when you consider other fantasy stories that use this storytelling method, but it’s usually a good number. However, because the characters are travelling together through most of the actual plot of the story and a lot of them are insubstantial, five characters is about three or four more than you need here. One of the characters is of course a dragon, one of the deformed ones, another is a noblewoman named Elise, another her attendant, Sedric, another one of the Rain Wilds hunters who happens to be a teenage girl, Thymara, and the last one is the captain of the barge that carries all of their supplies.
A good third of the book is spent with Elise, and her chapters tend to be the longest, even though she probably does the least out of any of the characters, aside from the dragon. I honestly think the book would have been much tighter if it kept to just the hunter girl’s chapters, or maybe her and the dragon, since the dragon adds a bit of a different perspective.The two male characters are utterly pointless to have around for the most part. Sedric is a pompous richboy with ulterior motives who used to be a friend of Elise, but all he really does is complain about the swamp and try to keep the plot from happening, which the rest of the book does fine on its own. The boat captain is supposed to have a shady past, and he’s the captain of what’s called a “liveship,” which is made out of the wood of dragon cocoons and requires a developing dragon to die in order to be made. Within the lore of the world, liveships retain the memories of the dragons they’re made from and have some autonomy, but the captain’s ferry doesn’t come alive or even do anything special. The captain himself spends half the book less connected to the plot than even Elise and Sedric, and the other half doting on Elise, which is creepy as fuck.
Thymara is a sort of wild-child who serves as a foil to the book’s other female human protagonist, and she’s taken right out of a bad young adult novel. She spends half the book working hard to prove herself in the face of adversity, only to lose all respect when she gets pushed around by the poorly-written dialogue of some whiny little man-child. And she’s not the only one! Her foil, a prim and proper lady scholar who supposedly knows a lot about dragons but shows none of her years of study except when wildly inappropriate, spends the vast majority of the book doting on her abusive husband, who likewise has the wit and charm of a piece of moldy brick. Sedric also spends a significant amount of time doting on the same abusive husband, revealing that, yes, this husband character, despite being described as so magnetic and persuasive he can hold multiple people under his will, is in fact just as dim and abrasive and uninteresting as he superficially appears.
Even the dragon is just a generally unpleasant character. While you can sympathize with her plight, her attitude and the way she goes about expressing it not only grates more and more as she interacts with other characters, but also becomes obscenely repetitive. She doesn’t grow, her complaints never change, and because the plot is decapitated, nothing ever comes of her disdain.
That’s a major issue for all of these characters: none of them undergo any development. None of them really have any development, and those who the audience are told have interesting backstories rarely show any influence from their backstories. The book can claim that Elise loves academics, but the audience is going to remain unconvinced if she never shows a hint of it. Thymara has lived in a loving family but an oppressive town for her whole life, yet she seems unaffected by either except to mention them occasionally. The boat captain’s shady past only comes into play at the beginning of the book, which doesn’t make it much of a past at all. And, of course, the dragon remains an arrogant prick the whole way through. As such, the characters are uninteresting to read about on their own, and doubly so when they actually begin to interact.
Even A Song of Fire and Ice, which often uses too many points-of-view at least manages to use its characters to expand the story. Elise, Sedric, and the boat captain’s perspectives aren’t just unnecessary asides; the page space they occupy bogs down the plot more than almost anything else in the novel. These characters alone are the reason it takes forever for anything to happen, especially since the book doesn’t have faith in the reader to surmise events happening to the other characters while someone else has the floor. For instance, after we learn about the plan to move the dragons from the dragon character’s perspective, we have to wait and listen to Thymara hear the details of the plot, and then Elise also learn the same details, each in chapters much longer and slower than the one that described the plan in the first place. I don’t get anything new out of hearing characters learn about something really simple three fucking times. I can assume it becomes well-known enough for these characters to learn about it, so you just cut to them either travelling to the dragons, or making the decision to get involved. I, like most of your readers, understand object permanence, you overrated soup label.
I kind of pity the salvageable elements of this book, because despite the veritable mess of everything else, I do think it’s still creative. The world is made up of a vast, unexplored swamp with corrosive water, some sort of inherent magic that gives people living in the swamp reptilian characteristics, and, of course, dragons.
Even though I don’t particularly like the dragon characters, their biology and the mythology surrounding these creatures is competent. The dragons in this world, as in so many others, are the last of their kind, but unlike in other books where someone stumbles upon the “last of the dragons,” as the trope often goes, these creatures come from a grim, unforgiving world where their presence isn’t a beacon of hope, but a veritable misfortune that earns the creatures fear and pity. The dragons in this world are really the second stage of life for reptilian serpents, which swim upstream to metamorphose, sort of like a combination of salmon and butterflies. When they cocoon, they form these wood-like chrysalises, then hatch into fully-formed dragons, but instead of being truly new beings, they retain all of the memories of their ancestors, memories they can also take from dead dragons or serpents in a strange combination of animalistic cannibalism and cultural heritage. The dragons in this book hatch out deformed, unable to fly, and with scant memories of their past lives. It puts them in a position of weakness, despite their innate egoism and arrogance, which has the potential to create vibrant character dynamics with the humans.
Of course, as I’ve mentioned, this dynamic is largely wasted and little explored, but I kind of like the idea behind it. There’s a complex relationship between the humans and the dragons on two separate levels. First, dragons in this world seem to affect people, their magic and presence turning ordinary humans into the extinct dragon-elf Elderlings. This same sort of magic acts on the people of the swamp, giving them scales, claws, and glowing eyes, which in the human society is incorporated as a social standing. Elderlings are highly respected for their relationship to the dragons and magical abilities, but the swamp people with claws and scales are shunned, even killed as babies if they look too inhuman. The dragons’ relationship with humans is also affected by the history of humans using dragon cocoons to make wooden structures, particularly boats. The liveships made from this “wood” can talk to people and have personalities like the dragons themselves, but obviously can’t fly or reproduce, trapped in wooden prisons so to speak.
The creative ideas in the book evoke the shadow of a deeper plot and lore, but the actual plot is uninterested in exploring these ideas or even really addressing them beyond stating the obvious. Most of the lore information is mentioned throughout the book, especially in the introductory chapters, but there isn’t any big revelation toward the end (well, maybe in the very last two or three pages, but I wouldn’t count it), so all you ever really learn about this world is clarification of what was previously hinted — things that are either apparent to some of the characters, or regular facts of everyone’s world. That’s a real shame, because it’s easy see this book using elements of the fantasy lore to pull its plot forward. Instead, we get page after page of “Ooh, he’s kinda hot when you think about it, even though he’s an abusive dunderhead, oh, and also a rapist. I should say something stupid to undermine my entire character.”
I get what this book is, and while it has some elements I enjoy, I still consider it inherently bad. I actively wouldn’t recommend it, and while I’d love to know more about this world, the book’s done nothing to reassure me that the sequel is any better. If for whatever reason you think it sounds interesting (and hey, I won’t judge — even bad books are worth a read sometimes), here’s a couple of warnings you should know ahead of time, aside from what I’ve already mentioned:
- One: There’s a rape scene fairly early in the book. It isn’t especially graphic, but it is about as unnecessary as a rape scene can get, and the victim’s response, while not necessarily unrealistic, is unpleasant, as is the scene itself. I’d personally recommend skipping it entirely (it runs from page 120 and ends by page 122).
- Two, this book has two openly gay characters. They’re both antagonists in one way or another. One of them is a rapist, the other is a conniving backstabber. Some would call this homophobic. I would be among those people. I’ll give the book credit that at least one of these characters has redeeming qualities, and these aren’t the only two antagonistic characters in the novel, but they are both pretty pathetically written. I don’t mind homosexual antagonists in my stories, but it’s a fucking dunderhead move to make your primary antagonists gay while ensuring the audience knows all of the protagonists in the story are unquestionably heterosexual.
This book was written in 2007. You’re well in your right to not want to read it for these two reasons alone. However, you can rest assured knowing that this book is one of the rare cases where the worst parts of it are a pretty sound example of the rest of the book’s quality.