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.