The Liveship Traders: Ship of Magic Book Review
As This Is the First In A Trilogy, Much Of This Book Is Setting The Scene And It Does So Very Well.
Title: The Liveship Traders: Ship of Magic
Author: Robin Hobb
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Date: February 2008
Oh look, I’m reviewing another Robin Hobb book. This one involves dragons, sea serpents, pirates and talking ships. And I hold this in very high regard as well. Set around the corner and down a bit from the Six Duchies in Assassin’s Apprentice, this plonks you into a world that feels a little bit familiar and is a delight to discover. It is not necessary to have read any of Hobb’s work prior to this trilogy. And in fact, if you want some fantasy that’s a little different, this might be a good place to start.
There seems to be little in the way of seafaring fantasy, so this book is a real eye opener; spending so much time on or below the decks of a ship means that the relationships that the characters form are intense, and so is the journey of the reader. Robin Hobb books tend to leave me feeling a little emotionally exhausted after reading them, but I maintain that this is not a bad thing – you invest in the characters and are well rewarded. This is very original fantasy, I’ve yet to read anything else set on ships (recommendations always welcome!) and around the water.
Robin Hobb takes a slightly different approach in this text, she is not using her usual first person narration. Instead, we are invited, if you will, to follow the fortunes of the Vestrit family and their liveship Vivacia. A live ship is a ship that is made of wizardwood and is alive. As in the figurehead of the ship is autonomous, capable of making its own decisions, holding lively conversation with the crew, assisting in the sailing of the ship, and having opinions of its own. (I am genuinely surprised not to have come across the notion of a living ship before, perhaps I have not read enough). They are rare, expensive, and can only be quickened after 3 generations of one family have died on the decks of the ship. Then, they come to life, holding all the memories of the three family members who died on board and also their own personality. They are so sought after because they are the only ships who can train up the Rain Wild River, with the mysterious Rain Wilders who only occasionally come to Bingtown and are always veiled, impossibly rich and have a lot of magic trinkets.
Because Hobb has chosen not to write in the first person, everyone gets an opportunity to tell their part of a tale. The protagonists of the book, I would say are the following three - first is Althea, the youngest daughter of the Vestrit family who has spent years sailing with her father and fully expects to gain captaincy of the ship Vivacia when she is quickened. Her friendship with Brashen Trell, a sailor who is considered to have disgraced his Trader family’s name through drug use does not endear her to her respectable sister Keffria and her husband Kyle. However, on his deathbed on the decks of the Vivacia, Althea’s father hands control of the ship over to Kyle, her hated brother in law, an act which turns Althea’s world upside down and sets her on a path that will lead her to dance with danger and death.
Kyle, an example of a truly horrid character, drags his son Wintrow away from the monastery to become a ship’s boy on board Vivacia. He is the secondary protagonist, it is through him we see Vivacia and part of life on board a liveship. He approaches things with a rare spirituality, and he makes the journey from a scared mouse of a boy to a man capable of commanding respect on board a ship.
The tertiary protagonist is Kennit, the pirate. He is a flawed, internally scarred human being and his unfolding story is fascinating to watch. He is a character of many, many layers, too many to condense into this review. Let it be said that throughout the text, threads of his past begin to come together and it is marvellous to watch and learn why he acts the way he does.
Essentially this is a tangled tale of lives that consider themselves insignificant, and ultimately come together in an intricate tapestry. Kyle wants to turn the Vivacia into a slave ship in order to make a fortune for himself. Althea runs away from home, horrified at losing Vivacia to Kyle, dresses as a boy to prove herself and keeps running into Brashen as they work alongside each other on various ships. The pirate Kennit wants nothing more than to own a liveship and to be king of the pirate isles. And in order to win favour and support, he declares that he will chase slave ships and free the slaves alongside chasing merchant vessels. Guess which slave ship he decides to pursue.... and then the tale unfolds upon the water, with a healthy dose of sea serpents and dragons running alongside the seafaring.
As this is the first in a trilogy, much of this book is setting the scene and it does so very well. There is a lot of information to take in and also to try and hold onto; this is not a book that you can pick up and put down with ease. However, as with all of Robin Hobb’s work, you will not really want to put it down! She has crafted a world that is not perfect, that has a slave trade, an incompetent ruler, and a town steeped in tradition that struggles with change. But it is a world that will drag you in, involve you in the arguments, and you will find yourself sympathising with Althea, drawn to Kennit despite his flaws and questionable morality, and like Wintrow, struggle sometimes to make sense of the world. These books show a depth of imagination, and talent. They are epic. The characters will live on in memory after the book is closed and that is why I rate this series so highly. Just read them all. How often do you get to read about talking ships and dragons in one text?
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