Sarah Keliher's Reviews > Dragon Keeper

Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb
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Mar 09, 11

bookshelves: read2010, sf-fantasy-general

I grew up on a toxic waste dump. I realize that sounds melodramatic, but technically it's accurate. My childhood home was ringed by no fewer than five Superfund sites - and, as we like to say, those are just the spots they've cleaned.

When I was a kid people weren't so concerned about the pollution. Arsenic was in the dust we kicked up on the playgrounds, on the berries we picked in the woods, in the small ponds where nothing lived and no birds ever stopped. The waterways were lined with gray heaps of slag from the copper smelter, in some spots enlivened by oil-slick rainbow stains made by unknown chemicals seeping out from the rocks. We were told not to fish or swim in the bay, which seemed to us kids to be hilarious: looking down off the docks into the still, metallic depths, we couldn't picture fish living down there at all, let alone anything you'd think of eating. And that was just the water. I still don't know what the mills were belching into the air, or what they're still churning out - sometimes, when the wind is right, you can both smell and taste the air: a sulphuric grit which stings your eyes and irritates your throat.

Now it's been spruced up. They sealed off the slag heaps and built fancy condos on top of them, planted new grass along the edges, dug up people's lawns and replaced them with new, cleaner topsoil. The smelter company offered a cash settlement to the people living closest to the plant, and they took it, even though the surveys hadn't been completed. They worked hard to restore the bay, and now when you stroll through the new grass and out along the docks you can look down to see bright colonies of starfish and sea anemones clinging to the piers, and deeper down, the quick dark shapes of fish.

Later, of course, we learned that the pollution went farther and deeper than the smelter operators had admitted to. Too late for the people who had settled, and too late for all of us who grew up splashing in that water and breathing that air. Statistics are readily available about disease rates in my hometown, telling us that you're much more likely to die of obscure cancers or get heart or lung disease there. I haven't seen anything on autoimmune disease, except that it's a hotspot for diabetes. I'm curious mostly because everyone I know, just about, has something crazy and unlikely wrong with them. Lupus, MS, celiac disease, autism, Crohn's disease, asthma - you name it. We're a sickly bunch.

We're not alone. All over the planet, people grow up in the shadow of industrial toxins, watch their kids and their friends get sick and die, watch their own bodies with wary concern. What can you do? You go on. Sometimes your pain and your poison can be transmuted into something beautiful, into art, into action, into something meaningful. Sometimes you just have to learn to accept your limitations and endure the pain.

And so this is a story for us. Here is a world where profit has trumped issues of morality and health, where generations grow up living with the legacy of pollution. It's sort of a counterpoint to the sunny ending of the Liveship books, where dragons and men are reunited and the deformed people of the Rain Wilds are transformed into something better. In this new series, we meet the people who were left behind, still deformed, without the hope that some magical intervention will save them from themselves. How they go on, and how they learn to transform themselves, is nothing short of inspirational.

This is what fantasy is best at, and this is why it's necessary.
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Comments (showing 1-21 of 21) (21 new)

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message 1: by Ian (new)

Ian Good stuff. Thanks for sharing something that makes me think.


Sarah Keliher Ian wrote: "Good stuff. Thanks for sharing something that makes me think."

Thanks. I wasn't quite happy with the end - glad it worked somehow.


message 3: by Ian (new)

Ian You'll think of something eventually. I periodically do review maintenance--editing and cleanup of things I said badly (or wrongly) in restrospect.


message 4: by Wealhtheow (new)

Wealhtheow Wow, what a fantastic review, Sarah!


Sarah Keliher Wealhtheow wrote: "Wow, what a fantastic review, Sarah!"

thank you!


message 6: by Wealhtheow (new)

Wealhtheow I just love it when people think about genre fiction--and when genre fiction inspires thought. It's so easy to dismiss fantasy as just being about exciting adventures or what have you, but I think many of us treasure sf/f for the odd, unexpected lens it can use on concepts (like, say, what it takes to survive and what the very acts required to survive do to a person). So thank you for this review, because I would never have picked this series up if I hadn't seen someone else get so much out of it.


Sarah Keliher Yes, I totally agree. Sf is so flexible and has such a great capacity for allegory - I think it's often much better able to reflect important social things than mainstream fiction can. And not just reflect them, but suggest solutions. A lot of current novels are sort of focused on the individual and their personal miseries, whereas sf is sort of already tilted towards the epic. If that makes sense. There are exceptions on all sides, of course.

Have you read any Kim Stanley Robinson?


message 8: by Wealhtheow (new)

Wealhtheow People keep recommending his books--they look weighty enough that I just haven't gotten around to reading them. You enjoyed them, though?


message 9: by Sarah (last edited Mar 10, 2011 08:39PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sarah Keliher I'm not a huge fan of the Mars books. He wrote a series called "Three Californias" which I really, really love. They envision three futures for California: one in which the population has been decimated by a nuclear attack and reduced to a primitive level of technology, one in which California has become an ecotopia, and one which shows a California that looks a lot like it does now, only worse - more malls, more freeways, more corporate control. The way the stories are intertwined lets Robinson really get into some important issues, like how much impact can our civilization really have on the landscape and still be sustainable? Or what can one person really do in the face of the great industrial machine that just eats us alive? What good is literature? They're deep books, and I've re-read them many times and always found something new to think about.


Sarah Keliher Wealhtheow wrote: "People keep recommending his books--they look weighty enough that I just haven't gotten around to reading them. You enjoyed them, though?"

...And I see you have Octavia Butler listed as a favorite author. If you liked 'Parable of the Sower', you'll probably also like the Three Californias series. Though his writing is not quite as graceful as hers was.


message 11: by Wealhtheow (new)

Wealhtheow Ooh, excellent! The Parable books are easily my favorites of hers (although I guess it could be argued that say, Kindred is a better book), and haunt me to this day. Have you read Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time? It's got a similar entwining of possible futures--a poor Latina woman is put into a mental ward, where she starts flipping between visions of a nearly utopian society and the horrific dystopia (a more extreme version of our modern-day racist, sexist power dynamics) which which they're at war. I highly recommend it!
(and in exchange, I shall put the Californias stories on my to-read list, and start following your reviews, as they're excellent!)


Sarah Keliher Funny, I just picked up a copy of 'Woman on the Edge of Time'! It's in my to-read pile - I'll bump it towards the top.


message 13: by Wealhtheow (new)

Wealhtheow It's one of those sad cases where, despite being written ~thirty years ago, the issues faced in the "modern" day still ring true. I found it really inspiring and really depressing, sometimes simultaneously. And the near-utopia Piercy thinks up is probably one of my very favorites--it actually felt like something worth working towards.

I don't want to over-praise it, though, and give you unreasonable expectations!


message 14: by Pete (new)

Pete daPixie I concur with many of the above comments...excellent review that comes from the soul.
What can you do? Forty years ago I became a Greenpeace activist.


Sarah Keliher Wealhtheow wrote: "It's one of those sad cases where, despite being written ~thirty years ago, the issues faced in the "modern" day still ring true. I found it really inspiring and really depressing, sometimes simul..."

You're not the only person who's talked it up to me - I feel pretty sure I will also love it!


Sarah Keliher Pete wrote: "I concur with many of the above comments...excellent review that comes from the soul.
What can you do? Forty years ago I became a Greenpeace activist."


Pete, thank you for the reminder: the antidote for despair is always action. I've been a big fan of Greenpeace since childhood. Today I'm doing my own environmental action - we live next to a ravine that was full of trash and choked by ivy. We've cleaned it out and I'm starting the replanting, with some native stuff, today. Start where you are, right?


message 17: by Pete (new)

Pete daPixie Go for it girl! Yesterday I almost got arrested for criminal damage. Sticking Greenpeace labels stating:'This product kills more than just Tuna' onto tins of Tuna in local supermarkets.
Just keep on singing that Petty song, 'in a world that just keeps draggin' me round... well I won't back down'.


Helen Fantastic review, I seldom read past a couple of lines. I'm proud of you guys getting stuck in to change things too.


message 19: by Clara (new)

Clara Luise Wow, this sounded like the first chapter of a book I'd love to read.


message 20: by Emma (new) - added it

Emma Maye A very moving review.


Melissa Sarah, your heartfelt & informative review is profoundly moving. I suggest/hope you consider authoring a book for publication. I would read it!


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