My rating: 4 stars
Ships and pirates don’t usually play a significant part in the fantasy genre. That is not the case of the first book in The Liveship Traders Trilogy by Robin Hobb, though. Told from different perspectives, Ship of Magic introduces readers to a world where the figureheads of ships can become alive. Throughout the book, various exciting and fleshed out characters seem to be put in the right place for a couple of questions to be answered in the rest of the series. How did liveships truly come about? Why are serpents following some ships and attacking their crews?
Kennit is the captain of one of many pirate ships. He had legendary good luck, and no one could have any doubts about it. For that reason, he kept it a secret that he owned a charm, a carved face of wizardwood, to avoid being subject to enchantments. He aspired to unite and be king of the Pirate Isles. He would then offer safe use of the Inside Passage up to the coast of Bingtown and Chalced to the merchants and traders, but for a fee of course. In order to know if he would be successful, he went to Treasure Island to offer valuable objects to the Others, a species with magical powers, in exchange for an answer. The general reply was yes.
The old Bingtown Traders own liveships, the only type of vessels that can sail the Rain Wild River. They are made of wizardwood and quicken when three family members from successive generations die on their decks. When that happens, their figureheads become alive, being able to talk and experience emotions. They have a special bond with the members of the family that bought them from the families that live in the Rain Wilds, the only place where wizardwood can be found.
The Vestrits have a liveship called Vivacia. She quickened and the figurehead wakened after Ephron Vestrit died on her deck. This was a difficult moment for Althea, his younger daughter. Not only did she lose her dear father, but she was also made to give up her place on board the Vivacia, despite being crucial to her quickening and her biggest dream being to one day become her captain.
Ephron had wanted to pass the command of the Vivacia to Brashen, a boy in the ship’s crew, but, when he was taken ill, his wife, Ronica, and his oldest daughter, Keffria, convinced him to name his son-in-law, Kyle, as the captain. As a Vestrit is always required to be on board the Vivacia, Kyle ordered his oldest son, Wintrow, to join the crew. Before having to return home when it became clear that his grandfather was dying, Wintrow was an apprentice at a monastery. Kyle and Keffria have two other children – a younger girl, Malta, and a little boy, Selden.
Throughout Ship of Magic, the fantasy world created by Robin Hobb becomes gradually more intricate and detailed. Ronica’s point of view, in particular, conveys a significant amount of information about the socioeconomic characteristics of Bingtown and its history. The newly arrived traders were starting to use slaves, something the first settlers and traders never did. Although the Vestrits had stopped sailing the Rain Wild River, they were part of the restrict group that could do it. Only the Rain Wild Traders and the old Bingtown Traders could sail it. Some people wanted to change that, though.
The existence of liveships in this world is believable. Them being able to speak doesn’t come across as outlandish, and the way they express emotions is convincing. Their feelings are often even poignantly conveyed. When Paragon, another liveship, is introduced to the story, at first it seems that the narration is being done through the perspective of a person. The pain he felt when children threw stones at him is palpable. The structure of the sentences is essential for the reader to be involved in a misery so great that he didn’t even want to acknowledge it. It only takes a pause and the repetition of three words.
“When he endured them stoically, they soon became bored and went off to find small crabs or starfish to torture instead. Besides, the rocks did not hurt that much, and most of them did not even hit. Most of them.”
Most of the human characters are similarly well portrayed, complex and believable in their imperfection. Althea is wilful. She makes rash decisions, but has the good sense of reflecting on her mistakes. Ronica is practical, resourceful and intelligent, despite also making some serious errors in judgement. Keffria is easily influenced by her husband in particular, but she’s not as idiotic as she seems at first. Kyle is a greedy, arrogant, sexist prick. And Malta is a silly, annoying, vain brat. A couple of the secondary characters, such as Etta, feel a bit cartoonish at some occasions, however.
The descriptions of the locations where the story is set in are more often than not easy to visualise, while also leaving much to the imagination. Readers can paint their own pictures with the elements provided.
“The capital city that gave its name to the whole Satrapy, centre of civilization, the cradle of all learning and art, glistened in the afternoon sunlight. Green and gold and white, she shone, like a jewel in a setting. Her white spires soared higher than any tree, and so intensely white were they that Wintrow could not look at them without squinting. The spires were banded with gold and the foundations of the buildings were rich green marble from Saden.”
As The Farseer Triloy, The Liveship Traders Trilogy is also set in the Realm of the Elderlings. Throughout Ship of Magic, there are even some mentions in passing to the Six Duchies, a war taking place there, and how women can captain ships there without an issue being made of it. This first book feels also just like an introduction to the world, there aren’t truly significant moments of resolution, these may be reserved for the next instalments. I can’t wait to read them and discover whether there are more connections to the previous trilogy.