Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Review: Mad Ship by Robin Hobb

cover art for Mad Ship, featuring a pale-skinned, dark-haired young woman looking wistfully to one side. She's wearing a full-sleeved white shirt and a leather vest. Behind her, a bare-chested male figurehead with brown skin and long, dark hair hovers against a green backdrop with a ship's rigging dimly visible.
As I've told you before, I often enjoy Hobb's middle books even more than her series openers. This one is no exception.

It's also most definitely a middle book. The action picks up soon after SHIP OF MAGIC leaves off, and there's little in the way of recap. Don't read it unless you've already read the first book, okay? Don't do that to yourself.

Hobb continues to explore the themes she introduced in the first volume, most notably the horrors of slavery and the need for people to stand against it. The Tattooed folk of Bingtown have a larger voice in this installment, and many of the other characters are forced to confront the role they've played in human subjugation. There's a substantial difference between disapproving of slavery and actually doing something to end it; likewise, with acknowledging the Tattooed are people and actually treating them as such. The characters with privilege have a lot of unpacking to do.

The additional focus on slavery also brings the liveships' situation into clearer focus. As the book rolls along, it's clear that the "oh, liveships are a member of the family and happy to serve" excuse doesn't entirely fly, especially once the secret of their genesis comes to light.

This happens far more quickly than I would have expected. Hobb reveals the truth fairly early on in this book instead of drawing the mystery out for another thousand pages or so, making this less of a what's-going-on and more of a how-do-we-deal-with-this. It's always nice to see a series throw something like this into the mix at a point where everyone can reasonably process it before the series ends. In this case, I'll tell you there's still a fair bit to do by that point, but the groundwork has been laid.

On the character development front, Malta begins to shine. She remains very much herself (which is to say, she's self-centered and driven), but she slowly gains a greater understanding of what's at stake for her family, her city, and her own happiness. There's no overnight transformation here. Really, one can debate whether there's a transformation of any sort. Instead, Malta gradually becomes a version of herself that really gets what everyone's been trying to drum into her. She makes connections on her own and with her family's help, she comes up with creative solutions to problems, and she gets shit done.

Granted, she's always gotten shit done. Now, though, she's not just getting shit done for her own selfish ends (but hey, if she can benefit too, why shouldn't she?).

I frickin' love her, y'all. And this is the book where she transforms from an interesting but infuriating kid into the sort of powerhouse for whom you'd gladly die on the hill.

Hobb's settings are every bit as detailed as the characters who inhabit them and the issues she explores. Bingtown, the Vestrit family's home port, is a fascinating place with complex traditions and ever-shifting social structures. The city has seen dramatic changes over the last couple of decades due to illness, increased foreign influence, and the introduction of slave labour into the local economy. The role of women, too, has seen a frightening change in recent years, and Hobb shows us the effect the new restrictions have had on both older women and their younger counterparts.

Bingtown's sister community, the Rain Wilds, achieves greater prominence with this book as Reyn, Malta's Rain Wilds suitor, becomes a POV character. It's a gorgeous, magical place suspended from massive trees, steeped in mystery, and tempered by the high price it exacts from its inhabitants.

Said inhabitants play an important role in the liveships' creation, too, tying them firmly into the issues at hand.

We also get a good look at the Pirate Isles, an almost-nation that hovers in flux as it waits for someone to mould it into a cohesive whole. And we spend a little time in Jamaillia, Bingtown's nominal overlord city, where we once again see a recent and frightening shift in womens' roles. Serilla, one of the Satrap's Companions of the Heart, runs up against this patriarchal change in extraordinarily painful ways, first as she watches her influence as a scholarly adviser trickle away and later as she's subjected to sexual violence that everyone around her trivializes.

The narrative, I hasten to add, never trivializes any of it: not the realities of slavery or the impact of rape1. When any of the characters attempts to do so, they're painted as monstrous, their influence a source of horror for those over whom they hold sway. At its heart, the Liveship Traders series strongly asserts that these people should be stopped; that anyone who would condone slavery, rape, or the destruction of an entire race must be fought as well as condemned. The story never shies away from the difficulties of this fight, but it features characters who believe it's a cause worth fighting for.

And of course, there are great characters and exciting sea battles and serpents with memory problems. All that good stuff. Yet again, I haven't said nearly enough, so let me tell you straight out that it's gripping, can't-put-it-down stuff and I want you to read it.

Just don't start here, please. Read SHIP OF MAGIC first.


While I always advocate your local library as the absolute best source for books, I recognize this may not be an option for everyone where every book is concerned. If you're in search of another way to read MAD SHIP, you can try:

I receive a small percentage of the purchase price if you buy the book through one of the links above.

  1. There's one scene, though, that's continued to bother me on down through the years. Althea acquires a suitor who tells her he'd never kiss a woman without asking first. Althea's response is to wonder if she actually wants to be with someone who'd ask before they kissed her. I'd like to think this scene springs from Althea's view of consent, which is heavily coloured by her first sexual encounter (she tells Brashen it wasn't rape, though the way she talks about it later makes me wonder if she doesn't change her mind on that), but it's still troubling.

    Consent is essential. Always make sure the person you want to kiss wants to kiss you.

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