Having finally completed the painful ordeal of Lawrence Durrell's endless Alexandria Quartet, I looked for something more predictably good. I found that I had unaccountably let a Hobb book linger, and I turned to it with enthusiasm - something reliably comfortable and good!
Unfortunately, while generally speaking I got the ease and comfort I was looking for, I continued to be disappointed by this series. It's eminently readable, fun, and easy, with likeable characters and a sound plot. But it's simply not up to Hobb's usual standards, and that's been true of the series as a whole.
It seems clear that this is intended to be the end of the Rain Wilds sequence. Key plot lines are tied off, but there are broad hints at more to be explored. I'm not sure whether that's a good thing. I love this world, but this latest series is a substantial under-achiever, and I'm not sure I'd want more of that.
We learn more here about the Elderlings, and dragons, and the source of magic. But it's all underplayed in favor of the human relationships. Frankly, I was disappointed. Since first encountering the Elderlings (was it in the second Six Duchies trilogy?), I've been excited to learn about them. Here, they turn out to be less than expected, but not in a particularly emotional and interesting way. Their magic also turns on a particular source of power which is rediscovered in a somewhat offhand way. This power is based on memory, which we know to be important to dragons, but the definition and use of 'memory' is so contorted that it becomes clear it's simply not a strong enough foundation. I wish Hobb had simply made clear that memory was merely one application of the power.
While human relationships are the core of the story, I found them disappointing. Hobb matches up pairs too neatly, and tries to tie things off with a pretty bow. I'd have preferred something a little more realistic, and didn't find these pairings entirely credible. In addition, she fits in some set pieces on gender relations. While I agree with her point, they read as if they were written by a progressive author for an '80s audience, not for today. Of course, it's true that part of the audience may still have an '80s mindset, the pieces felt dated and a little embarrassing ("Yes, Grandma. Of course they should have equal rights. These days, they do.") At the same time, Hobb undercuts herself by sticking with some dated views of her own - the 'boys' are excited by war, and the 'girls' like to dress up.
There is some subtext hinted at but not explored - principally that dragons, arrogant as they are, are substantially changed by interaction with humans. While this has been touched on throughout, I felt there was much more Hobb could do with it, and have some hope that she will in a future series. It would be a nice return to the higher level of sophistication in the Apprentice and Tawny Man trilogies.
As with some of the other books in this series, the editing was below par. While there were few typos, there were some word errors I wouldn't expect from Hobb. For example, "All the dragons seemed to know whence they were bound, whether from ancient memories or shared thoughts". Since they've just left Kelsingra, I'll bet it's from recent memory. Hobb obviously means "where" rather than "whence", but I was surprised to see this slip through, and there were a few similar cases.
All in all, a good read, but a bit simplistic, and below average for Hobb. Perhaps she's aimed this series at the Young Adult audience. If so, I'm afraid she's gone a bit too far. Here's hoping the next series returns to a more sophisticated style.