by Robin Hobb

The term ‘classic’ seems to unconsciously attach itself to this opening novel in Robin Hobb’s latest trilogy. Not classic in the sense of a true landmark for the genre – the pace is too pedestrian, the action too infrequent and the repetition of some opening points too laboured for that distinction. No, more ‘classic’ in the sense of ‘the classics’ as there’s definitely a liberal dash of period drama mixed into this creative endeavour.

      Of the three female protagonists, Alise Finbrook’s tale adheres most strongly to the structure and flavour of, say, a Charlotte Bronte or Jane Austin heroine. She’s a downtrodden individual out to advance herself as a scholar in a world dominated by the male preserve of commerce. Initially, she finds herself stifled – first by an uncomprehending family, then by a loveless marriage – but eventually rallies to pursue a journey of self discovery that sits beyond the perceived limitations of both her class and her sex.

      If Alise’s dream was just to become a business woman in her own right, we’d probably be ending the review right here. Thankfully, with her scholarly research focusing on dragons, we’re back in Death Ray territory – even before we get to the fact that the other central characters are a clawed, tree-urchin girl and a crippled queen of the winged lizards.

      There’s no doubting there are some clever and compelling ideas at work here, and Hobb’s skills for luscious characterisation and creative place setting are in full flow. There’s also the sense that you can forgive the general sedentary nature of the book by understanding that this is just an opening to a much larger plot cycle. But, there’s still something lacking here compared to Hobb’s more macabre and claret happy work. And it’s this lack, despite all the classical dressing, that leaves this more petticoat adjuster than bodice ripper.