Sunday, 8 June 2014

Book Review: The Liveship Traders

Title: Ship of Magic, The Mad Ship and Ship of Destiny
Author: Robin Hobb
Year Published: 1998-2000
Genre: Fantasy

The Liveship Traders is the second trilogy set within the world of Robin Hobb’s ‘Realms of the Elderlings’, for which there are currently fifteen books. While you don’t need to know anything about the first trilogy – The Farseer Trilogy (a.k.a. the Assassin books) – in order to understand this one, The Liveship Traders contains major spoilers for its predecessor so you may want to read The Farseer Trilogy first. In fact, if you’re a fantasy fan and you haven’t read the Assassin books, don’t bother with this review and just go read them now. The first book is Assassin’s Apprentice. Go on. You can thank me later.

Anyway, back to The Liveship Traders. Though it’s comprised of three books (Ship of Magic, The Mad Ship and Ship of Destiny), The Liveship Traders is better characterised as one somewhat very large novel. To put it another way, what you have here are three books, each being some 900 pages long, none of which work as standalones – so be ye warned.

The name of the trilogy essentially describes its premise. In the Cursed Shores, there is substance known as wizardwood – a sentient wood that can only be sourced from the Rain Wilds. A ship built from wizardwood will “quicken” and come to life only after three family members from successive generations have died upon its deck. At the start of the trilogy, the liveship Vivacia is about to quicken – an event to set in motion everything else in the series. The plot is almost impossible to describe without spoilers, so pro-tip: don’t read the blurbs. The Liveship Traders involves multiple plots and characters and is a slow burn sort of deal in the bestest sort of way. If you like seafaring adventure stories, fantasy, and being patient, this is the series for you.

Hobb has built a fully realised fantasy world both traditional and unique; its features are rich but not obnoxiously so; everything in the world, from its seal hunters, its religions, its cultures and its magic, simply belongs. Hobb brings a spark to traditional fantasy elements like mythical serpents, to innovations like wizardwood and even to the small domestic rituals shared between Bingtown folk and the Rain Wilders. The Rain Wilds in particular inspire a sense of wonder – something all too often lacking in fantasy fiction.

In addition to a multitude of settings, we are witness to a multitude of points of view. As a sample of this variety, we have Wintrow, the boy in training to be a priest; Althea, the tomboyish daughter of the Vestrit family; Kennit, the ambitious pirate; Paragon, the mad ship; Ronica, the pragmatic Vestrit matriarch; Brashen, the disgraced Bingtown son; and Malta, the girl you want to smack in the face. Personal, political and fantastical plot lines are woven together masterfully for all these characters, and if you ever get weary of one story-line, you know that a fresh point of view is not far away. Similarly, there is a mixture of light (ooh~ island exploration~) and dark (sexual violence) material. The Liveship Traders is one of those rare series where the tone, plot, setting and characters are balanced, so that you rarely feel overwhelmed or underwhelmed by any one aspect.

My only issue was that the ending seemed way too unrealistic (and yes, I do realise this is a series about talking ships).

<Spoiler alert, obviously>

While this may be a tired comparison, I’d say that if you enjoy Game of Thrones, you’d probably like this series too. It’s similar in that it covers a broad scope of characters, settings and dilemmas and it’s different in that it’s actually finished. In any case, your priority here should be to read The Farseer Trilogy – not only will it enhance your reading of The Liveship Traders, but it’s also excellent. I mean, it’s less “balanced” than The Liveship Traders, but if I’m to be completely honest, its wildness is precisely why I like it better of the two.

Alex’s Rating: 4/5

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