“Ship of Magic” by Robin Hobb

Ship of Magic coverThis is a catch up review for Ship of Magic, the first book in the Liveship Traders trilogy. This trilogy stands by itself, but it is set in the same world as the Farseer trilogy, although the setting and characters are almost completely different.

This is also the series that made me a huge fan of Robin Hobb. Although I liked the Farseer trilogy (see my reviews of book 1, book 2 and book 3), the ending left me a bit confused and I really wanted to see the world sketched out a bit more. Hobb certainly does that and a lot more.

The story begins in the port city of Bingtown, a heavily taxed but otherwise neglected exclave of the nation of Jamallia. Bingtown Trader families are famous for their liveships – vessels carved from a special type of wood that ripens into sentience after three people in the family die aboard. Althea Vestrit has been waiting all her life for their ship Vivacia to quicken – even with the sadness of her father’s death accompanying it. She has grown up on board the ship and fully expects to inherit it, but when it actually happens, she’s in for a nasty shock – the ship instead goes to her greedy brother-in-law Kyle. Althea’s gentle cousin Wintrow is training to be a priest and greatly enjoying it, but his father Kyle is determined to make a sailor out of him – by force if necessary. The newly awakened and confused Vivacia needs someone with Vestrit blood aboard her, but all she has is Wintrow, imprisoned upon her against his will. And there’s Kennit who is not satisfied with being the most successful pirate of his time, and his plans will lead him directly into Vivacia’s path.

Hobb is never unduly kind to her characters – she makes them work really hard and go through a lot (it’s almost physically painful to read about sometimes, but at least it pays off in the end, unlike some authors I could name.) They are not Chosen Ones – they are just fairly ordinary people that only become heroes because they care about something very much, and will cross any obstacles for it. Althea is no exception – she’s stubborn, spirited and impertinent. I found myself alternating between cheering for her and being exasperated at her obstinate sense of entitlement. She loves Vivacia and after a few days of utter despair, makes up her mind that she will do anything to get her back – including proving her seamanship by enlisting on a dangerous whaling ship. Wintrow is also very well written, especially his relationship to Vivacia. He resents her because her need for Vestrit blood has chained him to her, but he also recognises that she’s sad and confused and needs his help.

Another thing I love about Hobb’s fantasy is that there are no straight up villains. Everyone is complex and changeable, and Kennit is no exception. He’s got some backstory behind his desire to capture a liveship, and he prides himself on being just and practical, and he’s even kind most of the time. He also manipulates people for his own ends, but Hobb never portrays it as evil – he’s just the product of his circumstances. The supporting cast is also really well envisioned – especially other Vestrit women (Ronica, Keffria and Malta.)

The plot is really just a function of the characters’ natural actions – although there is the lingering issue of the sea serpents. Hobb’s descriptive writing and the complex history of Bingtown and the Rain Wilds really brings the setting to life.

Highly recommended, even if you’ve never read anything else by Hobb.

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