The first chapter, “The Riverman,” is preceded by a pair of missives from official messengers, one of which is personal and marks changes in political arrangements. The chapter, proper, opens with complaints of the cold aboard the deck of the liveship Tarman as the captain, Leftrin, wakes in the morning after a night of drinking. Urged by dimly recalled dreams, Leftrin dresses and informs the crew that he is going ashore, assessing the state of affairs after recent flooding.
While pressing through the hostile shore and surroundings, Leftrin happens upon a wizardwood log of some size, and he recalls earlier experiences of such things in the Crowned Rooster chamber where Tintaglia had lain dormant until her release. Leftrin considers his familial and professional histories and assesses how he might make use of the cocoon of the dead dragon that has presented itself to him, mind reeling with the idea of the money clandestine sales of the product would bring. The need for discretion and the possibility of sale to Chalced, the fraught nature of relations with which is glossed, also occurs to Leftrin. As Leftrin returns to the Tarman, though, the ship, one of the oldest of the liveships, speaks to him in his mind, bidding him put the wizardwood to the ship’s use and improvement.
This first chapter of the book strikes me oddly as I read it again for the first time in a while. While the kind of exposition that makes up much of its content is to be expected upon both the beginning of a book and the introduction of a character, fantasy in the Tolkienian tradition in which Hobb participates (despite clear deviations from it) typically focuses on protagonists who, while they might be bastards, and they might well engage in unsavory and disreputable behaviors, are not outright criminals–and Leftrin is perilously close to that mark. But then, the Rain Wilds Chronicles are direct sequels to the Liveship Traders trilogy, and there’s a fair bit in the preceding novels to read as commentary on the United States and its history (as noted here, here, here, here, and here, and probably ought to be elsewhere). There’s a long and storied history of such protagonists in US literature–Twain’s characters come to mind, not least the Connecticut Yankee who goes to King Arthur’s court–and the argument could easily be made, if it hasn’t already, that quite a few of those figures that are venerated in the civic identity of the US are…questionably ethical profit-seekers. So perhaps it ought not to be a surprise that shady Leftrin receives initial focus in the text.