Saturday, December 5, 2015

Ship of Magic Book Review

by The Wanderer

Author: Robin Hobb
Publisher: Bantam
Genre: Epic Fantasy
Series: Liveship Traders Book One
Pages: 832

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Following the success of her Farseer Trilogy, Robin Hobb returns to her Realm of the Elderlings but in a new location with all new characters. Timeline wise this takes place shortly after the concluding events in the above mentioned trilogy, and the results from that ending are mentioned briefly throughout the main storyline here.  How those events will impact this story is yet to be seen as Robin Hobb takes the setting outside the Six Duchies and into the sailing port of Bingtown.

Bingtown is a traditional city that is famed for its use of liveships, or ships that are made out of a material called wizard wood which grants them the ability to come alive. Liveships can talk, read into their family members’ thoughts, and occasionally use their arms to hit things. A liveship isn’t born alive, but rather three generations from the same family must die on the ship in order for it to “quicken” and become a liveship. It’s the magical concept that spurs this trilogy on.

Ephron Vestrit, patriarch of his family, is slowly dying. Once he dies he will be the final generation needed to quicken his family’s liveship the Vivacia. His youngest daughter Althea has sailed with him for years and expects to inherit the ship. The family’s falling fortunes convince Althea’s mother Ronica and her older sister Keffria to scheme and make sure the ship falls into the hands of Kyle Haven, Keffria’s husband. Kyle plans on using the ship to reverse the family’s fortunes by trading in slaves, whilst grooming his oldest son Wintrow into becoming his heir. Having spent years away from his family training to be a Priest of Sa, Wintrow’s return to pay respects to his grandfather’s passing has him stuck on board a ship he doesn’t want to be on with a tyrant of a father. On the pirate isles, long time pirate Captain Kennit wishes to make himself King of the Pirates by being the first man to capture a liveship.

Compared to The Farseer Trilogy, the biggest change in The Liveship Traders is with the narration. Farseer is entirely in first person, and if you haven’t read that trilogy, the narration style was the blue print for realistic first person fantasies like Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles. Liveship switches to multiple third person limited narrators (there are a few moments of omniscience). In affect, the narration style here bares a lot of resemblance to Hobb’s famous contemporary at Bantam, George R.R. Martin – the scheming for power, morally complex characters, and unmerciful treatment of characters certainly does as well.

Fantasy infused questions about the humanity of liveships, the power of wizard wood, and what magical mysteries – besides the existence of wizard wood – lie up the Rain Wild River make for a mysterious world. Bingtown’s political situation is also complex. As a province of Jamaillia, Bingtown technically falls under the jurisdiction of its ruler, the Satrap. The latest Satrap in line cares more about his personal pleasure than what happens in a city hundreds of miles away. As Bingtown’s trader families continue to hurt due to high taxes and having to selling their goods in competition with people who are using slaves for free labor; the situation is becoming desperate.  It also puts a strain on each of the Bingtown families relationships with the Rain Wild Traders – the mysterious group of people whom were commissioned in the building of their liveships.

Althea and Wintrow get the most development time and can be seen as the two primary protagonists. Althea is adventurous, she loves sailing, and she will not confine herself to being a stay-at-home mom. She’s headstrong, admittedly spoiled, but has a weakness in communicating with people.  While she’s not shy, or awkward, she doesn’t really put any effort into making friendships or allies.

Wintrow comes off like your stereotypical well trained monk, always responding to criticism and bullying with calm religious mantras. The thing is, Robin Hobb’s world is brutal, and as Wintrow sees more of the difficult world he lives in after spending years of maintaining his innocence at a monastery, his faith becomes sorely tested. His refusal to fight back in many situations may morally be the right decision, but it can also be detrimental to his personal safety. What I really appreciate about Robin Hobb is how she makes her characters pay for their weaknesses. It’s cruel yes, but it’s incredibly relatable.

And then there’s Captain Kennit, the sociopath pirate who’s constantly dreaming of power, and fearing mutiny from his crew. The way he thinks about people, and the way he treats people can oftentimes be cruel. His quest to take a liveship is not agreed upon by his first mate Sorcor, so an interesting compromise is made between two. Ironically it’s this compromise, and a few other misunderstandings, that turns Kennit into a beloved hero.

Ship of Magic is an excellent opening to a trilogy. It can be read without having to read the Farseer books, too. Although if you haven’t read those I’d recommend you do, they’re also really good. Admittedly I was skeptical about reading this especially with the horrible cover and not to mention title, so I went into reading this solely on faith in the author alone. Faith has rewarded me well.

Score: 9.4

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