– An article by Edward Bilson Esq –
It’s very easy for postapocalyptica to degenerate into tropes. Zombies in Zurich, cannibals in Croyden, dragons in Dogellau; while these can be entertainingly written, it’s refreshing to come across a fresh take on the genre. Robin Hobb is a pseudonym. Real name Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden, AKA Megan Lindholm, has been writing for thirty years, conveniently sorting her work into pennames by genre. As Robin Hobb she has published the excellent Farseer, Liveship Traders and Tawny Man trilogies, set in the same northern european/colonial america type universe, and the similar but separate Soldier Son Trilogy.
I read the Farseer Trilogy when I was about twelve and it changed my taste in books permanently. The system of magic it used was focused on two methods – the Skill of royal blood and the illegal Wit. Over the course of the trilogy Hobb tied the Skill closer and closer to a lost civilization called the Elderlings, littering the Six Duchies of her books with abandoned cities, ‘skillpillars’ (used to travel great distances instantaneously) and the now extinct dragons. Their use of memory stone – a black marble with silver running through it, imbued with the lives of Elderlings and dragons from more than two thousand years past – makes them dangerous places for humans, who drown in the memories. The Liveship Traders focuses on Bingtown, Trahaug and Cassarick, a colonial society far to the south of the Six Duchies. Home to rivers that run with acid and clan-owned ships which absorb the memories of their captains as they die, the Traders of Trehaug and Cassarick mine buried Elderling cities for their prized treasures, in return disfigured with scales and wattles by the effects of the magic the Elderlings left behind. It is this book that we are first introduced to the rapidly disappearing sentient sea serpents of the warmer southern seas.
Finally the Tawny Man trilogy shifts back north to the Six Duchies and the attempts of the nameless White Prophet to restore dragons to the skies of his world. All of which seems to be standard high fantasy fare: lost civilisations with technology so advanced so as to appear as magic, heavily influenced by Mediaeval fascination with Roman engineering
(another subject I can bore you on – in Spain there are Roman dams still in use after two thousand sodding years). ‘What the hell is up with this guy,’ I hear you ask. ‘I came here for zombies not bloody dragons. Sort your life out’. Bear with me.
Things change when Hobb starts writing the Rain Wild Chronicles (not a trilogy, as I found to my bittersweet rage when I finished the third one). See, after two dragons are restored to the world in the second and third trilogies, it becomes apparent that serpents are just a precursor to dragons. They swim up the river to the Rain Wilds cities of Trehaug and Cassarick, and after a period in stone coccoons (incidentally the material that the liveships have been produced from, much to the rage of the newly-hatched dragon Tintaglia) turn into dragons. Irritable, vain, stunted dragons with varying degrees of intelligence, which need to be herded/coaxed upriver by volunteers from Trehaug to a lost Elderling city called Kelsingra which may or may not exist.Long story short, Kelsingra exists, rent in two by the earthquake which destroyed the heart of the Elderling and dragon society so long ago. And in accompanying the dragons, the heavily deformed Rain Wilders are further transformed – into Elderlings. As they live and work in the empty city, they begin to absorb the lives of those who walked the streets before them.
For me, this is what qualifies the Rain Wild Chronicles as Postapocalyptica. This is no longer the worn out (if much loved) trope of humans scrabbling about in the ruins of a lost world. This is the return of two races which had been thought dead forever, the reshaping of a world into an altogether more scary one as dragons and new Elderlings assume their place as masters and servants in the abandoned cities which have been stripped of their wealth by humans for so long. As a longtime fan, I have little idea how Hobb will follow this one, and not much to console myself with in the mean time. If you’ve never read her stuff, I’d recommend starting with Fitzchivalry in the first Farseer book (The Assassin’s Apprentice). Alternatively, if you want dragons now without all that tedious mucking about with wolves*, go for the
first Rain Wilds book The Dragon Keeper. You will find an elegantly constructed universe, brilliantly fleshed out characters of every stripe**, and the only example of dragon ex machina*** I have ever come across. You will not regret reading them.
*What the hell is your problem with wolves. Wolves are great. Cretin.
**And I mean every. The questions raised about gender in the Tawny Man series are very interesting, the Rain Wild Chronicles contain numerous heartfely, genuine gay relationships – a sharp contrast to the lesbian passages in A Song of Ice and Fire which at times feel like they are written for a fourteen year old boy, and a principle character in the Farseer books is a grumpy Hegelian wolf. Don’t get me started on the beautifully written vanity of the dragons, which are probably the least human characters I have ever read.
***You really want this arsehole to die, but there’s only a dozen pages left, and no conveniently placed bad guys to kill him. Then he gets eaten. It’s great.