Dragon Haven by Robin Hobb

This is the second book in Robin Hobb’s Rain Wild Chronicles series, part of a larger sequence of fantasy novels set in a world known as the Realm of the Elderlings. I have been reading through the sequence in order of publication, beginning with the Farseer Trilogy and then moving on to the Liveship Traders Trilogy and the Tawny Man Trilogy. I started the Rain Wild Chronicles (a quartet rather than a trilogy) earlier this year and so far, after loving all of those previous series, I am quite disappointed with this one. In comparison with the others, I think these books feel less mature and less emotionally powerful, and although they are good enough for me to want to persevere and read all four, I am looking forward to being finished with them so I can start the final trilogy, Fitz and the Fool.

This second Rain Wild novel picks up the story exactly where the previous one ended, which is not surprising as I’m sure I read somewhere that they were originally supposed to be two halves of one long book. At the end of Dragon Keeper, we left our group of dragons and their keepers making the long and difficult journey up the Rain Wild River in search of Kelsingra, the legendary Elderling city now lost in the mists of time. In Dragon Haven the journey continues, with our characters facing a new set of trials and challenges. Who will survive and who will not? Will the dragons ever grow strong enough to fend for themselves? And will they ever find Kelsingra?

To start with the positives, I found myself enjoying the storyline following Sedric and the little copper dragon, Relpda. This surprised me because, based on the first book, Sedric was not a character I had imagined ever liking, but he undergoes a transformation in this book, largely due to the bond he forms with Relpda. And he is not the only one who changes as a result of spending time with the dragons. Without wanting to spoil too much for anyone who hasn’t got this far in the series yet, we learn a lot in this book about the connections between dragons and Elderlings – and are introduced to the intriguing idea that if dragons are coming back into the world, why not Elderlings too? I also enjoyed seeing Leftrin’s liveship, Tarman, take on more personality of his own.

Mainly, though, this book is concerned with the romantic relationships between the various characters and I have to admit, none of this interested me very much, particularly where the teenage dragon keepers were concerned. I didn’t really care whether Jerd was sleeping with Greft and whether Thymara would choose Tats or Rapskal or resist being forced to choose at all. And although I was pleased with the way Alise’s story played out, I found it quite predictable which meant I didn’t become as emotionally invested as I would have liked.

The book does end on a bit of a cliffhanger which has left me feeling more enthusiastic about reading the third book, City of Dragons. I’m hoping it will concentrate more on the dragons, Elderlings and Kelsingra rather than on trying to pair off every character regardless of whether it feels necessary or natural. I will also be interested to see, when I finally move on to Fitz and the Fool, whether I’ll be glad I read the Rain Wild novels or whether I could have missed them out.

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper

Since reading Susan Cooper’s Over Sea, Under Stone earlier this year, I have been looking forward to reading the rest of her The Dark is Rising sequence, especially after I was told that Over Sea, Under Stone is usually considered the weakest of the six books. The second book, The Dark is Rising, sounded appropriately dark, so I decided to read it for this year’s R.I.P event. The first thing to say is that although Over Sea, Under Stone was the first to be published, I don’t think it’s essential to read it before starting this one. They are linked by the character of Merriman Lyon and the same overarching theme, but otherwise they are quite separate stories.

The Dark is Rising, published in 1973, is set in the fictional English village of Huntercombe during the Christmas period. The novel opens with Will Stanton celebrating his eleventh birthday on Midwinter Day – 21st December – and wishing it would snow. He gets his wish because snow does soon begin to fall…and keeps on falling, covering the landscape in a thick blanket of white as far as the eye can see. Stepping outside into a world transformed by snow, Will quickly discovers that it has been transformed in other ways as well – the houses and roads of his own time have disappeared, to be replaced by the dense forest of an earlier age.

As Will begins to explore this strange, enchanted land, he learns for the first time that he is one of the Old Ones, destined to join the people of the Light in their ongoing battle against the forces of the Dark. With the help of Merriman Lyon and the mysterious Lady, Will must look for the six Signs of the Light and only when he has collected all six will he be able to ward off the powers of the Dark.

The Dark is Rising is described as a children’s classic, but even reading it as an adult I found it genuinely creepy in places. The villains, particularly the sinister cloaked Rider, are quite menacing and the way the snow keeps falling, day after day – too heavy and too persistent to be natural – adds to the general eeriness. For any tale of the conflict between good and evil to be effective, the evil needs to feel really evil and that is certainly the case here. But although the Light is obviously the ‘good’ side, Will discovers over the course of his quest that sometimes it is necessary to make sacrifices and difficult choices – and that sometimes innocent people will be made to suffer in furthering the cause of the Light.

Will himself could have been a fascinating character – an intriguing mixture of ordinary eleven-year-old boy and wise and powerful Old One – but I didn’t find him as interesting as I would have liked. This is maybe because his quest just seems a little bit too easy – he is led straight to most of the six Signs without really needing to search for them – and so he comes across as somebody to whom things happen rather than somebody who actively makes them happen. I also wondered at first why Susan Cooper had given him so many brothers and sisters (he is the youngest of nine children and I found the number of characters introduced in the opening chapters a bit overwhelming), but the significance of that soon becomes clear.

There are some elements of English folklore incorporated into the plot, such as the legend of Herne the Hunter, and Christmas traditions and customs play a big part in the story too: giving and receiving presents, decorating the tree, singing carols. While this book was a perfect choice for the R.I.P. challenge, I wish I had saved it until December as it would have been a perfect Christmas read. Anyway, I enjoyed it and am looking forward to reading the other books in the series.

This is book #4 read for this year’s R.I.P. event.

The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo

First of all, this is a quick note to say that I am moving house this week so won’t have much time for blogging for a while – there are just so many other things that need to be done! I have prepared and scheduled some posts in advance, so you probably won’t notice any difference, but I might be slow to respond to comments or to catch up with commenting on your blogs. I’m hoping to get settled in quickly so that things can get back to normal, but meanwhile here is my review of one of last month’s reads, The Night Tiger.

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The Night Tiger was a surprise. I had been drawn to it mainly by the colourful cover and the fact that it was set in Malaya (now part of Malaysia), a country I know very little about, but I didn’t really expect to like it very much. I hadn’t read Yangsze Choo’s first novel, The Ghost Bride, because the subject didn’t appeal to me, and it sounded as though this book, like that one, would have a very strong magical realism element – and I’m not much of a fan of magical realism. Well, I was wrong about that; although there are times when the story does veer towards the fantastical, most of it is concerned with simply describing the folklore and superstitions of the Chinese people of Malaya and asking us to accept that some of these things may actually be real.

The story is set in the 1930s and is told from two different perspectives. First there’s Ren, an eleven year-old houseboy whose master, Dr MacFarlane, has recently died. While on his deathbed, the doctor asked Ren to carry out a very special task for him: to find his severed finger and bury it in his grave beside his dead body. This must be done within forty-nine days, otherwise Dr MacFarlane’s soul will be condemned to roam the earth forever. In need of new employment, Ren enters the service of another doctor, William Acton, then begins his quest to locate the missing finger.

Our other main character is Ji Lin, a dressmaker’s apprentice who has been secretly working in a dance hall in Ipoh to earn the money to pay off her mother’s gambling debts. While dancing with a salesman one night, she sees a little glass bottle fall from his pocket and, catching it before it hits the ground, she finds that it contains a shrivelled finger. This gruesome discovery leads Ji Lin to cross paths with Ren and when they each begin to have recurring dreams involving a train journey, it seems that their lives are becoming intertwined in other ways as well.

I enjoyed The Night Tiger much more than I thought I would. The setting is fascinating, of course; I have read two other books set in Malaya (The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng and The Separation by Dinah Jefferies) but they are very different types of books and don’t explore Chinese and Malaysian myths and legends the way this one does. The folklore surrounding the legend of the weretiger was particularly intriguing; there are hints that one could be responsible for the unexplained deaths that have been occurring around the town, and we can either believe that this is true or we can just believe that the characters in the story believe it is true, if that makes sense!

Both main viewpoint characters are easy to like; I felt closer to Ji Lin, because her story is told in the first person whereas Ren’s is told in the third, but I did love Ren too. He often seems very mature for his age – probably because he has been forced to grow up quickly due to his personal circumstances – but at other times he behaves more like the child he still is.

I’m still not sure whether I want to read The Ghost Bride, but I will look out for Yangsze Choo’s next book and see if it appeals.

Thanks to Quercus Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay’s newest novel, A Brightness Long Ago, is a prequel to 2016’s Children of Earth and Sky but although they are set in the same world and share one or two characters, each book also works as a standalone. I think this is probably my favourite of the two, although I enjoyed both.

Like most of Kay’s novels, A Brightness Long Ago takes place in a land which closely resembles a real historical setting – in this case, Renaissance Italy. Our narrator is Guidanio Cerra of Seressa, a city which, with its lagoon and canals, clearly corresponds to Venice. Guidanio is looking back at events from his past, beginning with his time at the court of Uberto of Mylasia, a cruel tyrant who once ‘sealed an enemy in a cask to see if he might observe the soul escaping when his prisoner died’ and who has become known as the Beast due to his treatment of the young girls and boys he summons to his chamber at night. As the son of a humble Seressan tailor, Guidanio knows it is a great honour to have been given a position at Uberto’s court but he quickly discovers what sort of man he is serving and so he is not at all sorry when the Beast is assassinated one night by the latest young woman who has been brought to his rooms.

Her name is Adria Ripoli, the Duke of Macera’s daughter, and she is acting on the orders of her uncle, Folco Cino, a leader of mercenaries. Having witnessed Adria enter Uberto’s chamber to carry out the assassination, Guidanio helps her to escape before she can be captured. He expects never to see her again, but as chance would have it their paths do soon cross again and Guidanio finds himself drawn into the conflict between Folco Cino and his rival mercenary commander, Teobaldo Monticola, two powerful men whose actions could determine the fate of Batiara (Italy).

A Brightness Long Ago explores some of Kay’s favourite themes, such as chance encounters, the spinning of Fortune’s Wheel, and the idea that the small decisions each of us make every day of our lives could have wider repercussions, affecting not only our own future but the future of others too – in other words, that everything we do matters. These are topics that Kay returns to again and again in his novels but they seemed particularly dominant in this one and that was my only slight criticism of the book – not the ideas themselves, but the way the authorial voice is constantly reminding us that ‘things matter’. I would have preferred a more subtle approach, I think! Anyway, the writing was still as beautiful as I’ve come to expect; as some of you will know, I choose a quotation from every book I read for my end-of-month Commonplace Book posts – I will have a difficult choice when I come to put this month’s post together as almost every sentence in this book was worthy of being quoted!

The 15th century Italian (or Batiaran) setting was already familiar to me from Children of Earth and Sky, but even if you haven’t read that book, if you have any knowledge of Renaissance Italy you will probably be able to draw parallels between some of Kay’s characters and members of the Medici, Borgia and Sforza families, among others. There’s a dramatic horse race – one of the most memorable set pieces in the book – inspired by the real life Palio race which has taken place in Siena for centuries, and the fall of Sarantium (Constantinople) is also covered. The different names Kay uses for these people, places and events, along with the two moons in the sky – one blue and one white – mean this book can be classed as ‘historical fantasy’, but there aren’t really any other fantasy elements in the story at all. That’s not a problem for me, but if you’re new to Guy Gavriel Kay and hoping for something with magic and wizards, I would recommend starting with Tigana instead.

Thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb

Over the last few years, I’ve read and loved Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy, Liveship Traders Trilogy and Tawny Man Trilogy, but I have to admit that I wasn’t particularly looking forward to reading Dragon Keeper, the first in her four-book Rain Wild Chronicles series. Although I found the dragon storylines in the earlier trilogies quite enjoyable, I wasn’t sure that I really wanted to read a series in which the dragons would be the main focus – and also, after coming to the end of the Tawny Man books, I just wanted to continue Fitz’s story rather than have to get used to a whole new set of characters. It was tempting to go straight to Hobb’s final and most recent trilogy, Fitz and the Fool, but I knew I should keep reading in order of publication as the books do all form part of one larger sequence and it’s possible that things could happen in the Rain Wild series that I need to know before returning to Fitz.

Anyway, Dragon Keeper picks up the story that was set into motion at the end of the Liveship Traders. Guided by the dragon Tintaglia, a group of sea serpents have made the long journey up the Rain Wild River to the shores of Cassarick, where they have formed the cocoons where they will await their transformation into dragons. When the day of the hatching finally arrives, the people of the Rain Wilds – among them eleven-year-old Thymara and her father – gather round to witness this historic moment: the moment that will mark the return of dragons to the world for the first time in generations.

The dragons that emerge from the cocoons, however, are weak and malformed due to the inappropriate conditions they had lived in as serpents and the difficult circumstances surrounding their cocooning process. These creatures are unlikely ever to fly like their ancestors and can barely even manage to feed themselves. It seems that their only hope of survival is to make their way to Kelsingra, the ancient city of the Elderlings, but if they are to get there safely they will need some human help. Thymara, born with claws and scales – a more extreme example of the mutations that affect many of the Rain Wild people – is chosen to be part of a team of dragon keepers who will escort the dragons to their legendary homeland.

And there’s not really much more to the plot than that. There’s a sense that, with this first in the series, Hobb is setting things up for the three that will follow and the story is just beginning to get started when the book comes to an end. I liked it enough to want to continue, but it is certainly my least favourite of Hobb’s books so far. Maybe because so many of the dragon keepers are children (they are seen as more dispensable, not having families who rely on them), it felt almost as though this book was aimed at younger readers than the others.

There were several characters who intrigued me, though, and I’ll look forward to seeing how their storylines develop in the next book. One of these is Alise Kincarron, a young woman from Bingtown who looks destined for spinsterhood before entering into a loveless marriage with a local trader, Hest Finbok. The dragons hold a special fascination for Alise and the chance to accompany them on the journey to Kelsingra is both a dream come true and a way to escape from her husband. Hest has no interest in the dragons himself, so asks Alise’s childhood friend Sedric to chaperone her – but we, the reader, know something about Sedric that Alise doesn’t and that makes us think of him more as a villain than a friend.

As a setting, I prefer the Six Duchies of the Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies, but I did enjoy the descriptions in this book of Trehaug, the city built in the treetops above the Rain Wild River. We did visit Trehaug and the Rain Wilds at several points throughout the Liveship Traders trilogy, but they lose some of their mysterious aura in this book as we learn much more about them and the people who live there. In case you’re wondering, we do meet some of the Liveship characters again (I was particularly pleased to see Paragon) but their appearances are very brief and the focus is definitely on Thymara, Alise and the other new characters. And the dragons, of course! Part of the story is told from the perspective of Sintara, a blue dragon who is not quite as weak and stunted as some of the others, and it was interesting to see things from her point of view now and then.

Although I couldn’t quite love this book, I did find it a relatively quick and easy read, in comparison to some of Hobb’s others which are usually much longer and more emotionally demanding. I’ll continue the series soon with the second book, Dragon Haven.

Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

I am looking forward to reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s new novel, A Brightness Long Ago, which will be published in May, but before starting that one I wanted to finally read a different book by Kay which has been on my shelf unread for a few years now. That book is Under Heaven, the first of two novels (the second is River of Stars) inspired by two different Chinese dynasties, Tang and Song.

Kay writes a type of historical fantasy where the emphasis is usually more on the historical than the fantasy. With most of his novels, I at least have a little bit of familiarity with the period on which his setting is based (Renaissance Italy, medieval Spain, the Vikings etc) but the setting of Under Heaven – a fictionalised Tang China – is one I’ve never read about before and of which I have absolutely no knowledge. That made this particular book a slightly more challenging read for me than the others I’ve read by Kay, but it has also left me wanting to know more about the real history of China during this period.

In the book, China is referred to as Kitai, with Tagur (Tibet) to the west. The novel opens with Shen Tai travelling to the battle site of Kuala Nor, where his father, an army general, once led the Kitan to victory against the enemy Taguran. Now his father is dead and Tai plans to spend the two year mourning period laying to rest the bones of the forty thousand dead, both Kitan and Taguran. It seems an impossible task, but Tai is determined to try anyway:

There were too many. It was beyond hope to ever finish this: it was a task for gods descending from the nine heavens, not for one man. But if you couldn’t do everything, did that mean you did nothing?

To acknowledge his efforts, the Empress of Tagur, once a Kitan princess, promises him two hundred and fifty magnificent Sardian horses as a reward – but Tai is not as delighted as you might expect him to be at receiving such a lavish gift. As he knows, ‘You gave a man one of the Sardian horses to reward him greatly. You gave him four or five of those glories to exalt him above his fellows, propel him towards rank – and earn him the jealousy, possibly mortal, of those who rode the smaller horses of the steppes.’ Imagine the danger a man could be in who possesses not just four or five but two hundred and fifty of these legendary animals! This is a life-changing moment for Tai and on his return journey to the imperial capital of Xinan he finds that he has become the centre of attention, with various factions at court all vying to take possession of the horses for themselves. These include An Li, a powerful military leader; Wen Zhou, the Prime Minister; and Wen Jian, the ‘Precious Consort’ of the elderly Emperor Taizu.

In a parallel storyline, Tai’s sister Li-Mei is being sent north beyond the Long Wall to Bogü (possibly Mongolia) where she is to marry the son of the Bogü leader. Marriage to a barbarian is not what Li-Mei had in mind for herself, but a chance to escape this fate comes when she is rescued by the mysterious Meshag, who takes her across the steppes on a journey as eventful and dangerous as Tai’s.

Kay’s female characters are always strong and interesting and I enjoyed following Li-Mei’s story as much as Tai’s. I’ve already mentioned Wen Jian, the emperor’s consort, who is a match for any of the men when it comes to manoeuvring her way through court politics, but my favourite of the women in the novel is Wei Song, the Kanlin warrior who is sent to protect Tai and takes her duties very seriously, even if it means putting her own life at risk. Of the male characters, apart from Tai himself, I particularly liked Bytsan sri Nespo, his Taguran friend who brings him the message about the Sardian horses, and Sima Zian, the famous poet who accompanies him to Xinan and becomes one of the few men he can trust.

Poetry runs through the novel, as does superstition, myth, legend and political intrigue – but there are only one or two small elements that you could really describe as fantasy (mainly at the beginning, with the ghosts of Kuala Nor – ‘outside in all seasons, moonlit nights and dark, as soon as the sun went down’). Most of the other Guy Gavriel Kay novels I’ve read are set in a world with one white moon and one blue, but the world of Under Heaven has only one (he makes a point of telling us that the poet Sima Zian has often dreamed of having another moon to write about). I’m curious to know why he decided to set this one in a different world to the others, especially as we were back to the two moons again in his most recent book, Children of Earth and Sky.

I will have to find out more about the Tang Dynasty and the An Shi Rebellion, but I’m also looking forward to reading River of Stars which is set four hundred years later, during the Song Dynasty. First, though, on to A Brightness Long Ago!

The Binding by Bridget Collins

With its attractive cover and intriguing premise, I hoped for great things from The Binding, but sadly it was not to be. I could tell almost from the beginning that it was probably not the right book for me, but I continued anyway, hoping it would get better – and it did. For a while in the middle I found myself enjoying it…but by the time I reached the end my feelings had turned to disappointment again and I wished I had followed my first instincts and stopped reading early on. For the right reader, though, I think this will probably be the great read it promised to be, so don’t let me put you off if you like the sound of the book!

The Binding is set in an unspecified time period, but there were clues that pointed to the late 19th century. Most of the action takes place in and around Castleford, a town in West Yorkshire, but it really could be anywhere. I’m sure the vagueness is deliberate because, as you’ll see, the world of The Binding is not quite the same as our own.

The novel begins with young Emmett Farmer receiving a summons to take up an apprenticeship as a bookbinder. He is reluctant to go – because he doesn’t want to leave his parents, his sister and the family farm, and also because he has always been told that books are dangerous and should be avoided – but it seems he is to be given no choice in the matter. Arriving at Seredith’s isolated bindery in the countryside, he learns from her the art of producing beautiful leather-bound books. But the real skill is involved in creating the contents…

Binders have a talent for drawing out unhappy or painful memories from people’s minds and trapping them between the covers of a book. With their memory wiped clean that person can then move on with the rest of their life, while the secrets of their past remain locked away in a vault. It’s a fascinating ability, but one which is open to abuse. What if one of these books falls into the wrong hands? What if someone is forced to have their memories bound because someone else wants them to forget? It’s a fascinating concept and the novel explores many of the equally fascinating issues that arise from it.

The book was divided into three sections and I think this structure caused some of the problems. In the first third of the book, we learned very little about Emmett even though he was our narrator and protagonist. His background was not really described in any detail, his relationships with his family and then with Seredith didn’t feel fully developed and I couldn’t even have told you what sort of personality he had. When the middle section of the story began to unfold, I understood why so much had been concealed from us and I was pleased to finally begin learning more about Emmett and the other characters – but by that time it was too late for me to feel the connection to them that I would have liked to have felt from the beginning.

I also think I’d had the wrong expectations for this book. I thought there would be a stronger fantasy element and that the concept of binding would play a bigger part in the story than it actually did. Instead, I couldn’t help feeling that the binding was only really there to provide a sort of framework for a romance between Emmett and another character. It’s disappointing because I think there was a lot of potential here and a lot of other intriguing ways that the binding idea could have been used. I’m sure there will be other readers who love this book, particularly those who enjoy young adult romances, but it just wasn’t quite right for me.