Saturday, 15 October 2016

Wertzone Classics: Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb

The Bingtown Traders have grown rich from the use of the liveships, great, sentient sailing ships made of the fabled wizardwood. After three generations of captains die on their decks, they quicken into life. Epheron Vestrit's death brings the liveship Vivacia to life, but the jubilations of the Vestrit family are cut short when it is revealed that the ship will pass into the ownership of Kyle Haven, the husband of Epheron's eldest daughter, rather than to his younger daughter Althea. Furious at this betrayal, Althea vows not to rest until the Vivacia belongs to her again. This resolve only hardens when Kyle decides to use the Vivacia to carry slaves, to the horror of his family.

Meanwhile, an unusually eloquent and cultured pirate captain named Kennit schemes to become King of the Pirate Isles. His plotting involves liberating slaver ships, winning the hearts and minds of the people...and finding and capturing a liveship.

Ship of Magic is the first novel in the Liveship Traders trilogy, which takes place in the same world as The Farseer Trilogy but in the lands to the south. There's an almost completely new cast and setting (one major Farseer character does show up in disguise), with most of the action taking place on ships or in dingy port towns. This shift to a nautical setting is refreshing and makes for a very different-feeling novel to the previous books.

The structure of the book also changes. Farseer was told in a first person point-of-view from FitzChivalry Farseer, but The Liveship Traders is told from a rotating POV structure. The major characters are Kennit, Althea, her mother Ronica, sister Keffria, niece Malta and nephew Wintrow, but other POV characters include the Vivacia herself, the beached, mad liveship Paragon and Brashen, another crewman on the Vivacia. This immediately makes for a grander, more epic story as the author moves between different characters.
Whilst this loses the immediacy of the Farseer books and the deep connection with Fitz, it does allow Hobb to cover the story from more angles and explain things more clearly rather than filtering all of the exposition and information through Fitz alone. It's a good move, justifying the novel's impressive page count (over 870 pages in paperback) rather more convincingly than the Farseer books, which felt rather padded out to reach such lengths.

Indeed, although I've only to date read Hobb's first six novels, Ship of Magic is easily the best. The story is epic, but it feels tight with naturalistic character development of a large cast and events proceed at a steady clip. Hobb's main skill has always been in the development of a convincing emotional connection to the characters and that skill is in impressive form here. We share Althea's frustration and betrayal, Wintrow's shock and hurt at his relationship with his father Kyle and the casual betrayal of his calling, Ronica's uneasy dealings with the Rain Wild Traders as she tries to protect her family's holdings and Kennit's ambitions as he strives to make his people more than what they are.

Kennit is easily Hobb's most fascinating character to date. He is greedy, selfish and arrogant, but he also has a fast-moving intelligence and wit and altruistic outcomes see to flow from his self-centred acts. Kennit's ability to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances on the fly and ensure that he always comes out on top is impressive. Kennit clearly has negative characteristics, but it's not entirely clear in Ship of Magic if he is supposed to be a villain. Indeed, it is Kyle Haven who more readily fulfils that role in this book.

Ship of Magic (*****) is an outstanding fantasy novel, and an impressive return to form after the disappointing slog that was Assassin's Quest. The book moves with pace and vigour despite its length, the cast of characters is fascinating, the worldbuilding subtle but convincing, the background politics intriguing and the book moves with tremendous purpose. The ending will leave you eager to read the next book, The Mad Ship, immediately. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.


Anonymous said...

Hope you enjoy The Liveship trilogy as it is the best of them all, but sadly it's all downhill from there, with Soldier's Son being the worst of all. I gave up after the first volume in the Rain Wild Chronicles then tried again for Fool's Assassin. I ended up skipping through great chunks of it then giving up entirely. I'm just not interested in returning to Ms Hobb's novels. She has some great ideas but I can't help thinking 'I wish she'd stop meandering and just get on with it.' - Ian

Anonymous said...

Ian, the "meandering" is the point! The action scenes and the plot and whatnot are just there to provide substance for Fitz's rumination... Hobb is much more about the suspense of what might happen and the regret of what didn't happen than about actual running-jumping-punching-kicking action in the normal epic fantasy sense.

Adam: it's nice to see someone prefer Liveships to Farseer. I have to admit, Fitz's novels are still my favourites (though Farseer is my least favourite of his three trilogies, so far), but I think that, objectively speaking, Liveships is a more accomplished trilogy than Farseer (though I thought Ship of Destiny was considerably better than Ship of Magic, which has my favourite few chapters (the whaling ship) but is otherwise rather more simplistic.

I'm surprised you feel it less bloated, though. I felt that the pace was very, very slow compared to Farseer. I mean, the "let's briefly tell you the names of the main characters" prologue, all by itself, was 20 or 30 pages long.

I think of the trilogy as being something kind of Victorian, if Victorians wrote epic fantasy in a modern idiom. A big, multigenerational Saga about the importance of Trade and Sound Financial Management.

Recommended: imagine the theme tune from 'The Onedin Line' playing whenever they're on a boat...

Anyway, are you stopping with Liveships, or is your plan to charge on through the whole cycle? I'll be interested to hear your views on Tawny Man if you do go on. I suspect you'll find it slow, but you might find the way it intentionally undermine's the reader's response to Farseer interesting...

Anonymous said...

Hi Vacuouswastrel. I understand what your are getting at and I didn't mind the meandering at first, but after 20 years of it, it does get very tedious. Which is why I started skipping to get to the relevant plot details. No longer a page turner. It reminded me very much of Peter F Hamilton's The Great North Road which took me a year to finish. Thanks for the Onedin Line tip. I haven't seen that for 40 years. I wonder if it still stacks up after all this time? - Ian