My rating: 4 stars
Set in a world where the figureheads of ships become alive, wood has magical properties and pirates have great aspirations, The Mad Ship by Robin Hobb, the second instalment in The Liveship Traders Trilogy, continues to explore the characters presented in the first book, Ship of Magic (which I won’t be spoiling), while also introducing new ones. As the plot progresses, not only do we learn more about the characters, but we also start to uncover the connection between some of the fantastical elements in the story. However, the more we learn, the more curious we become about the intricacies of their correlation.
As the book starts, many of the familiar characters are dealing with complicated situations. Althea continues to try to prove herself worthy of captaining a liveship. Her interactions with Ophelia, the sassiest of liveships, are riveting. While Wintrow tries to find a way to help his family, Vivacia’s loyalty seems to be increasingly more divided, thanks to what she has been subjected to. Paragon is still being shunned by his family. And the sea serpents continue their quest to find the One Who Remembers, in order to being able to recall who they truly are.
It’s not only the more personal lives of the characters that are in turmoil, though. The Old Traders of Bingtown are not pleased with the way they are being treated by the current Satrap of Jamaillia nor with the new fees imposed on them. The conflict between them introduces two new characters to the story – the Satrap himself, who is a spoilt, irresponsible young man, and one of his advisors, Serilla.
While some characters gain an unexpected prominence, others are even more intriguing than before. We get to learn more about Jani Khuprus and her son Reyn, members of one of the Rain Wild families, who know more about the Elderlings and their connection with wizardwood than they openly admit. Amber is another character who seems to be hiding something. Her concern for Paragon and her friendship with Althea seem genuine, but her intentions are not totally clear. Malta goes through an interesting growing process throughout the book. She evolves from being a brainless prick, who believes being possible to manipulate everyone around her, into a young woman who can act in the face of adversity, making her far less infuriating. Her role is more important than it seems at first.
All of the characters have flaws, even the more easily lovable, which makes the book convincing. Althea is sometimes too rash and on occasion almost self-centred. She can focus on the most pressing issues for her family when that is crucial, however. Her having her own aspirations is refreshing. Kennit, on the other hand, is extremely manipulative and on the surface ruthless, but he has some redeeming qualities, despite trying very hard to hide them from those around him. Something happened in his past that shaped him and that is being slowly disclosed.
Although the tribulations of the characters are of extreme relevance in The Mad Ship, the magical elements are as compelling, plus certainly imaginative. The truth about wizardwood and its magical properties starts being revealed. It is ingenious and affecting. The connection between the sea serpents and the liveships also feels original and well thought out. The details about it will surely continue to be explored in the next book in the trilogy.
Those who have read other books by Robin Hobb won’t be surprised that there are several philosophical considerations and moments of introspection about life in general throughout the book.
“All humans did was temporary. How else could it be, with creatures who died?”
For the book to be fully successful, it just needed a better balance between the various elements that Robin Hobb chose to focus on. Some of the political disputes occurring in Bingtown needed to be further explored, in order for their complexity to be totally clear. Too many things happen at the same time to the point that, occasionally, it feels like the book features too many strands. On the other hand, at the beginning, too many basic facts about the relationship between Bingtown and Rain Wild traders are repeated unnecessarily, as they had already been made perfectly clear in the first book in the trilogy.
Nevertheless, in The Mad Ship, Robin Hobb succeeded in striking the right balance between revealing new information and maintaining an aura of mystery. She managed to satisfy and arouse my curiosity at the same time.