Monday, July 14, 2014

Review: Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb

cover art for Ship of Magic, featuring a pale skinned man wearing a kerchief and carrying a sword arrayed against a background of ships' sails
You know that thing where you really, really love something, so you really, really want to talk about it, but your mind veers off in twenty-nine directions at one and you never end up squeezing the words out?

Yeah. That's pretty well the case here.

I'll never write it if I try to impose more than a modicum of organization on my thoughts, so this post is simply me reacting to something I love. I can promise you plenty of enthusiasm and a lack of spoilers, but I can't guarantee anything resembling a standard review or a definitive conclusion beyond, "I love this."

Okay? Okay.

Let's begin with a summary-type thing, though, so you've at least got a grounding before we head into Memory-gushes-for-thirteen-hundred-words. SHIP OF MAGIC is the first book in the Liveship Traders trilogy, which takes place in the same world as the Farseer trilogy but some distance to the south and several years later. There's one overlapping character and the occasional reference to what happened at the end of ASSASSIN'S QUEST, but you don't strictly need to read the other series first. This one stands alone.

(Except the overlapping character is way more exciting if you've already met them so you can be like, "Is that...? I think that's...! It is! It is!" Which is always fun. Also, not something I'll really delve into here because I'd like you to experience it for yourself.)

These books flow more in the standard epic fantasy vein than the Farseer books did. Hobb presents the reader with a large cast of characters, each of whom has their own substantial stake in the game. Almost everyone gets a shot as a POV character (in third person, as opposed to Fitz's first), and their personal struggles feed into the larger concerns their societies face.

Althea Vestrit serves as our window into the story. She's always expected to inherit Vivacia, her family's liveship--a sentient vessel imbued with ancestral memories as well as a unique personality--and is shocked when her father instead leaves the ship to Althea's elder sister and her husband in a bid to keep the family's flagging fortune together. Her quest to prove her worth as a sailor and regain Vivacia impacts each of the other characters in turn.

Vivacia's new ownership has the strongest impact on the rest of the Vestrit family. Wintrow, Althea's nephew, wants nothing more than to become a priest and is horrified at his father's insistence that he live aboard Vivacia, who won't sail without a blood relative nearby. Malta, Wintrow's sister, can't understand why the family needs to budget, or why her aunt is dead set against the father Malta idolizes. Keffria, their mother, is quite content to let her husband take care of everything, and resents her mother, Ronica's, attempts to teach her the financial matters Ronica has handled on the family's behalf for decades. And Kyle, Keffria's husband, is determined to rebuild the family's fortune by using the young, emotionally fragile Vivacia to turn a quick profit from the slave trade.

Key non-Vestrit characters include Brashen Trell, Vivacia's former first mate, who ends up entangled in Althea's struggle in spite of himself; Paragon, a mad liveship who has killed many crews and now lies beached near the harbour mouth; and Kennit, a pirate captain far to the south, who'd very much like to forge a new nation with himself as king. And hey, if he can do it from the deck of a captured liveship, so much the better. Kennit's lover, Etta, also features prominently as the story rushes along, as do the sea serpents who trail after the slave ships in search of fodder.

So the cast, she is large. But you know how epic fantasies can sometimes be a bit of slog because there are inevitably POVs you just don't care about? That's far from the case here. There's no need to wade through Catelyn to get to Tyrion, to use a popular example1. Every single character is interesting.

That's not to say they're never frustrating, because holy hell, are they ever. I tell people that Hobb's greatest strength is her ability to write characters who change and grow in believable ways throughout the narrative, and the Liveship Traders books are a study in character development. The kicker is, of course, that this requires everyone to begin with more than a few flaws.

Althea is capable but untried. She's never truly been a sailor, for all that she grew up on board Vivacia. She has no real grasp of the amount of work involved in sailing a ship, let alone captaining one, and she's prone to whine in the early pages. Brashen is a good sailor, but he's an addict who can't manage to keep hold of his money or govern himself without a strong role model looking on. Wintrow is about as self-righteous as one person can get (which was something of a surprise; I didn't remember him being this much of a judgemental prat). He often uses his religion as an excuse to look down on others, which ain't cool. Keffria isn't exactly lazy, but she's happy to buy into her husband's notion of gender roles; ie, that women ought to be cherished and coddled instead of required--or, for that matter, allowed--to work. Paragon is mad.

On a much darker note, Kyle is basically the patriarchy personified. He has strong views on how women ought to behave, and on a man's place in the world. He's also more than willing to engage in the slave trade, which he sees as quick and relatively harmless way to rake in the cash. That should tell you everything you need to know about him.

Hobb is so, so good at writing chillingly repugnant people. You loathe Kyle, but he's so sure of his own superiority that he seems impossible to fight.

Kennit reminds me of Iago from Shakespeare's OTHELLO. He's out for himself, always and forever, and would be just as happy to screw his associates over; however, circumstances conspire to make him appear a standup guy. Everyone who knows him believes he has nothing but their best interests at heart and will behave as a gentleman to the last, even as he's badmouthing them all inside his head. It's rather amusing--until it really, really isn't.

Then we have Malta, light of my soul, author of my truest delight. Malta is absolutely insufferable. She's selfish, entitled, and unwilling to listen to anyone whose opinion diverges from her own. She uses her not inconsiderable skills to get her own way and to plague those who would oppose her. And to top it all off, she idolizes loathsome Kyle. The first time through, I hated her to the very core of my bones--which makes it all the better that she's now one of my favourite literary characters.

Malta gets the best character development, y'all. More on that when we reach the next book.

I should note, too, that Paragon isn't the only mad character listed above (at least from my perspective; some of the other characters later refer to this person as "obviously sane," but I'm not sure where they got that idea). During my first reading, I thought this person's subtler form of madness didn't become apparent until a fair ways into the third book. This time, I wondered how I could ever have imagined they were sane. Was I dense, or is hindsight everything? Anyone else who's read these books want to weigh in?

Essentially, none of the characters begins in the best place, from an emotional standpoint as well as in the standard epic fantasy my-life-sucks-and-forces-are-arrayed-against-me sense. But oooooh boy, do they ever grow as life throws stuff at them.

Well, most of them do.

The characters have stayed with me down through the seven years I left between readings, but I'm surprised at how much of the plot I'd forgotten. I remembered enough, though, to appreciate all the foreshadowing Hobb does here. She plants the seeds for character growth, of course, but she also excels at dropping small, vital clues along the way so the series's eventual denouement is absolutely earned. The scope of the whole thing takes one's breath away once you see it all laid out.

Even before you see the complete picture, it's clear Hobb is out to tackle some big issues with this series. There's tons here about personal capability, human rights, and the ethics of profit as the Vestrits grapple not only with their role in the slave trade and its impact on their city but also with the fact that their sentient ship is herself a person they claim to own. (Or is she? To what extent is Vivacia a separate entity versus memories absorbed from those who've walked her decks? At what point does a sentient being become a person? Me, I immediately followed Amber into the Vivacia-as-person camp, but some of the characters are not so quick to decide.) And this is still only the first book. There's a lot more story, and a lot more interrogation of these important themes, to come.

I haven't said nearly enough, but let's leave it at that so I've got something left for the next two books.


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 SHIP OF MAGIC, you can try:

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

  1. Also one I disagree with, since I find Catelyn pretty durned interesting, but I've often heard folks speak in such terms so let's roll with it.

No comments:

Post a Comment