The fortunes of the Vestrit family have become more desperate. Their liveship, the Vivacia, has been captured by the notorious "pirate king" Kennit and is now helping liberate slaver ships on the seas between Jamaillia and Chalced. The Vestrits have no choice but to help refloat the mad liveship Paragon in the hope they can convince the deranged vessel to help them regain the ship and rescue their kin.
The Mad Ship is the middle volume of The Liveship Traders trilogy and very much reads like one. The story doesn't really start or finish, instead transitioning from the beginning to the end without necessarily having a defining storyline itself. The storylines begun in Ship of Magic are pretty strong so having them continue is fine, and the new additions to the world - a subplot involving the Satrap of Jamaillia and one of his Consorts, and a new story set in an Elderling city in the Rain River Wilds - are well-judged and engrossing.
However, the novel definitely loses some of the pace and momentum of Ship of Magic, which remains my favourite Hobb novel (again, only having read the first six). Hobb's net is cast wider here and the story, world and characters remain fascinating, but there's also much greater periods of time in which nothing much seems to be happening, or we touch base (again) with the Vestrit family having another grim conference about the status of the lower field and getting embarrassed with a family friend whose clothes are a bit old.
Still, if the momentum isn't quite as swift as in the previous novel, Hobb's other strengths remain on full display. The depth of characterisation is remarkable, especially of previously-annoying characters like Malta who develops impressively in this novel beyond the more stereotypical, troublesome teenager of the first book. The biggest success is in the curious relationship between Kennit, Etta, Wintrow and Vivacia, which defies cliche at every turn and becomes a gripping study in character dynamics, power structures and obligation (Hobb does torpedo this, rather frustratingly, in the final volume of the trilogy but at this point it's fascinating).
There's also some uncharacteristic (for Hobb) large-scale action scenes which she handles well, some more deft political maneuverings and some effective mystical dream sequences which hint at a major plot revelation about the nature of the liveships and their place in the world.
The Mad Ship (****) doesn't impress as much as Ship of Magic and definitely feels like it's a slower, more relaxed book, but it evolves the story and characters nicely and sets things up well for the final (and rather more problematic) volume in the trilogy, Ship of Destiny. The book is available now in the UK and USA.