Robin Hobb, author of the Farseer trilogy, has a gift for stirring intrigue into subjects that would seem mundane, and injecting originality into adventures which, on the surface, look like retread territory from other fantasy epics. Ship of Magic, The Mad Ship, and Ship of Destiny of the Liveship Traders trilogy, are built on familiar bones and archetypes. But still manage to stamp their mark on the fantasy genre nonetheless.
The high fantasy epic is centered on two potential lovers who are attracted to each other despite social pressures, status, family principals, etc. Althea Vestrit is a fiery, headstrong young woman with big plans for her future and a will to match. Brashen Trell is a rakish man of the sea, rugged and dark, finds himself willing to lay down all for her attention. Her family is in dire financial peril. His family has disowned him for his wild ways. Her father has passed away leaving her wicked step-brother in charge, to squander their dwindling fortunes. He feels obligated to come to her aid, having known her honorable father. If any of these elements sound familiar, try picking up a romance novel set around the English peerage.
But step away from the main theme and we find many more layers, story arcs, mythos, and lore, each presented to the reader at an easily digestible pace. The very fact that the author can introduce dormant dragons and talking ships, pirate kings and magic fish-man oracles, sentient sea-serpents and ancient enchanted ruins, all without straining credulity, is a gift.
In a world where dragons once roamed the skies and Elderlings lived alongside them in unique symbiosis, a global cataclysm wiped out both species simultaneously. Or nearly, as we soon learn. Humanity survived, societies spread, and even on the Cursed Shores found purchase in some of the most uninhabitable lands known to man. Up the Rain Wilds River, whose very waters run like milky toxic acid, dragon eggs are found by the trader families and harvested as wizardwood, carved and transformed into living ships that soak up the memories stored in blood.
The Vestrits, a proud family of traditional Bingtown traders, have suffered the sudden loss of a father, grandfather, and husband; the honorable Captain Vestrit. With his death comes the seed of rebirth as his memories are absorbed into the family’s Liveship, Vivacia, quickening the long-awaited and youngest of the Liveships. The dear captain’s body has barely cooled by the time the family is at each other’s throats, vying for ownership of the rare vessel and the rich trade it will inevitably bring.
On the far end of the known world, the shrewd pirate leader, Captain Kennit, seeks council with the monstrous sea creatures of prophesy and wisdom known as the Others. In a twist of fate it’s revealed to him that his greatest dream is just over the horizon. Should his luck and courage hold, the world will know him as King Kennit of Pirate Isles. But first he desires a token of his power to impress his people, a symbol for the pirate colonies to rally behind. Captain Kennit needs a Liveship.
Distinct from many fantasy writers like Terry Goodkind or the late Robert Jordan, Hobb never needs to repeat her own previous published works. A generic male hero of foretold prophecy does not rise up with his mystic, hand-me-down sword to vanquish the big bad evil darkness several books in a row. Look past the romance elements and you find the Liveship books to be engaging because of the characters themselves, their depth and their spirit. Not the amount of magic they can wave at giant spiders and orcs (and darkspawn, shadowspawn, tainted ones, etc.) Almost like a comic book or a daytime soap, the author skips around to build the story from a handful of character’s viewpoints, sparing the reader from the drudging, unnecessary plot-connecting scenes that plague some stories limited to a single perspective.
Slavery and rape are reoccurring incidences in Hobb’s books, though they are handled with enough maturity that they don’t darken the story significantly, nor does she dwell on those moments to inflate drama. Characters frequently reflect on events that help them grow without forcing the reader to relive them. Unfortunately, harsher subjects may isolate younger audiences in today's censored society, but are no worse than the images children see on primetime television.
Fans of the Farseer trilogy or the later Tawny Man trilogy will be pleasantly surprised to find a few familiar yet well-hidden characters and references. Although the Liveship books are certainly their own entity, the events that occur within them help to increase the lore of her ever-expanding world and flesh out its lands and peoples. The Fool himself (or herself) takes a hand in the fates of the Bingtown traders under a new alias, with many subtle hints to indicate his previous life with the Farseers.
I was leery of starting this particular epic since I have almost no interest in sailing or trading. Again, I found that a good author can spark interest, even if it strays from her usual style; first person narrative to third. If they aren’t already I think Robin Hobb’s novels should be ubiquitous in every high school library.
My only complaint may be her tendency to use a slow build, which often creates a 50-something page hump for new readers to climb before the action starts and the characters become familiar. I feel like every copy of Assassin’s Apprentice and Ship of Magic should come with a fanatic fan, wielding a pistol pointed at the reader’s head with a shaky grip, until they reach the later chapters.