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The Liveship Traders Series by Robin Hobb (no spoilers)

The Liveship Traders Series by Robin Hobb (no spoilers)
3.5
Book Name: Ship of Magic, The Mad Ship, & Ship of Destiny
Author: Robin Hobb
Publisher(s): Voyager Books
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / eBook
Genre(s): Epic Fantasy
Release Date: January 9, 1998 - November 19, 1998 - August 1, 2000

Credit goes to Robin Hobb for doing something new and challenging. Miles (literally) away from the medieval workings of the Six Duchies, Hobb undertakes sea serpents, pirates, talking ships and a host of new mysteries in her nautical themed second trilogy. Though it doesn’t have the same accessibility or emotional impact as Fitzchivalry’s story, it remains wonderfully plotted with plenty of deeply created characters.

Ship of Magic (cover)Ship of Magic, the first instalment, was first published in 1998. Differing from the Farseer Trilogy through a range of viewpoint characters, a third-person narrative and a whole new setting, it challenges many things that we thought we knew about Hobb’s carefully crafted world. The story revolves around the southern city of Bingtown, renowned for its trade in rare and magical items. It is said that “if a man can imagine a thing, he can buy it in Bingtown.” Even more interesting are the Liveships, ships with animated figureheads that quicken after three generations of the owning family die on deck. Much of the plot revolves around the Vestrit family Liveship, Vivacia, who after a twist in events not long after her animation, is forced into the slave trade despite her youth and the Vestrit’s general aversion to the trade. It’s certainly an interesting premise.

It’s a far more complicated story than the Farseers. It’s longer, more expansive and features more characters to track. Hobb’s talent at characterisation continues to shine though the novel suffers from a number of characters that are downright dislikeable, such as the criminally selfish Malta Vestrit and her weak-willed mother, Keffria. The viewpoints shift many times across a chapter, and though the characters are well-rounded and realistic, it can be difficult to empathise with them when they feel so distanced. The interrelationships that shift and shape as the novel progresses are well handled by Hobb, such as the father-son dynamic between Wintrow Vestrit and his father, Kyle Haven.

Wintrow, one of the more engaging protagonists, is taken from his monastic home and forced into a life on the sea, a life that he has not prepared for. His journey toward acceptance is a long and cruel one, but one of the plot highlights. His aunt, Althea, has spent years preparing for the quickening of the family Liveship, but fate deals her a tough blow and she is forced to rethink her life in another of the stronger narratives.

The opening of the novel, featuring pirate protagonist Captain Kennit traversing a beach full of curiosities, is an awkward affair as the reader adjusts to the change in Hobb’s writing style. Her prose is vivid and colourful, but it’s clear that her talent truly shines when she’s deep inside a characters head, experiencing the world through their eyes. Her overreliance on adverbs often stunts the novel’s flow, which is a shame as the world of Bingtown and the Cursed Shores really are sensory highlights. Captain Kennit himself is another interesting viewpoint character, a ruthless pirate captain with an interesting, tragic past. He is unpredictable and ambitious and a true tour-de-force of a protagonist.

Interestingly, some chapters are written from the perspectives of sea serpents engaged on a quest to discover a lost purpose in life. These sections can be confusing for the reader, especially as they seem to be totally disconnected from the remainder of the narrative, but as the series progresses, the narratives do collide and much of their purpose slides into place in an important way.

Ship of Magic is an adventure of a read. Perhaps too long, the plot threads are detailed and expansive yet full of promise. Hobb really lets her characters grow by the end of the story. They are not quite the same people they were at the beginning, for better or for worse. By the exciting climax, featuring mutinies, forced boarding and a well-needed collision of characters, the reader is well-invested in the story.

The Mad Ship (cover)The Mad Ship picks up the pace with far more plot development. It’s a little more brutal, and much darker. Many of the mysteries posed in Magic are answered, though plenty enough are left for the final instalment. The true nature of the Liveships as well as the destinies and fates of many characters, hang in the balance by the devastating climax of this second part.

Paragon, a beached Liveship and the titular Mad Ship, impresses with his temperamental and unpredictable attitude as the odd foreigner Amber strives to forge a friendship between them. The Bingtown Vestrits’ storyline is much more engaging this second time around. As their domestic situation worsens, so does the political situation in Bingtown. The plotting is brilliant, tight yet adventurous. It’s a testament to Hobb that, while the Liveship chapters were the most engaging in the first novel, it’s Ronica, Keffria and Malta who steal the show. Their story culminates with disaster as a terrible plot rips Bingtown apart, threatening to engulf them all.

Hobb’s major theme in the trilogy is morality. Many of the characters face a choice between a morally correct action or a profitable one. The Mad Ship holds thematically tight, no matter how much the story twists and turns over the course of its nine-hundred pages, but it’s still a struggle to have so many viewpoint protagonists, many in different locales, all competing for the reader’s empathies. Another important theme is growth and maturity. The younger characters, such as Malta and her brother Selden, are faced with adversity, and it’s interesting to see them rise above, or crumble under, the pressure of such deep, adult issues.

Ship of Destiny (cover)The story comes to a satisfying, if not resonating, conclusion in Ship of Destiny. As the title suggests, the destinies of all the characters are fully realised, and it’s interesting to look upon their earlier portrayals and wonder just how Hobb managed to change them so subtly, so naturally. In terms of readability, Destiny, ranks at the very bottom. It’s a convoluted story, as expected from its predecessors, but suffers from an over-complexity that Hobb managed to avoid until now.

It should be mentioned that Destiny is weighed down by a heavy amount of rape and near-rape scenes, or allusions to them. Though these scenes aren’t gratuitous, they can make for a tough, tense read. It is interesting to analyse how this fits into the author’s themes of morality and maturity, to watch as the victims deal with the trauma of such a violating experience. Though, at times, Hobb does near the edge of being preachy, the topic is handled well.

It’s difficult not to compare Hobb’s second trilogy to the first. Since the Liveship Traders follows on that story in a subtle way, and also leads into the second Farseer Trilogy, comparisons are inevitable. Liveships does not have the same emotional resonance that Fitzchivalry’s story has, nor the benefit of a single protagonist to fall into. It is longer, too long, some would say, but it succeeds in that Hobb’s plotting is intricate, like a golden web made of fantastic worldbuilding, deep characterisation and engaging prose. Liveships reveals its secrets gradually and quietly. It is the patient reader that will enjoy Robin Hobb’s second adventure the most.

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The Liveship Traders Trilogy Star Ratings:

Ship of Magic: 7/10
The Mad Ship: 8/10
Ship of Destiny: 7/10
Overall: 7/10

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Rating: 9.4/10 (7 votes cast)
The Liveship Traders Series by Robin Hobb (no spoilers), 9.4 out of 10 based on 7 ratings
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One Comment

  1. Crystal says:

    The Farseer Trilogy was my first hit of fantasy, and I loved it. I quickly found all of her books. The Liveship Traders was the series I kept picking up and putting back down. I just couldn’t get into it. I left it alone for a few years. I picked it up one day and loved it from page one. Sometimes a book (or series) needs a couple of looks before it clicks.

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