Mad Ship: Complex characters struggle for power and freedom

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This review will contain spoilers for the previous novel, Ship of Magic.

Mad Ship is the second book in Robin Hobb’s LIVESHIP TRADERS trilogy which is part of her larger REALMS OF THE ELDERLINGS saga. (I’ve explained how all the trilogies in the ELDERLINGS books are connected in my review of the first LIVESHIP TRADERS book, Ship of Magic.) I loved this trilogy when I read it about 20 years ago and I’m currently enjoying re-reading it in audio format. Anne Flosnik, who narrates the books for Tantor Audio, has a nice voice and does a good job distinguishing between the characters in Hobb’s large cast. These books are long; this one is 34 hours long in audio format, though I listened to it at double speed.

In Mad Ship, each of the characters continues their own particular struggle for power, whether they’re trying to gain it for themselves, their family, or for their community. Althea is trying to prove that she’s capable of captaining a liveship so she can get Vivacia back from her brother-in-law, Kyle Haven. She doesn’t yet know that Vivacia is now in the hands of Kennit, the man who wants to be king of the Pirate Isles. Alarmingly, both Vivacia and Wintrow Vestrit are happier under the pirate’s command than they ever were with Wintrow’s father, Kyle Haven. Althea also has a couple of romantic interests, but she worries that getting married means she’ll have to conform to a traditional woman’s role.

Back in Bingtown, there is political unrest as the Traders have become angry and disillusioned with the self-indulgent Satrap and the new Traders who’ve been given illegal land grants. Tensions are high and a war seems imminent. There are small personal wars going on in Bingtown, too. Young Malta Vestrit, vain and shallow, but clever, is making Bingtown life even more difficult for her mother Keffria and grandmother Ronica. Will the Vestrit women, bereft of the men they love, be able to work together to change their fortunes and save their town? It doesn’t look like it, and Malta’s childish antics and refusal to respect authority will have far-reaching consequences.

Meanwhile, below the surface of the ocean, unseen by humans, the serpents try to figure out their place in the world. It has something to do with liveships, dragons, and the strange physical defects that the people of the Rain Wilds hide from the rest of the world.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsAs I mentioned in my review of Ship of Magic, the ELDERLINGS books are focused on world-building and, especially, character development. The LIVESHIP TRADER characters are particularly interesting because most of them are driven by a need to exert their own power, often at the expense of others. In some cases, such as Althea’s and Wintrow’s, we admire the attempts to command their own destinies. In other cases, such as Malta’s, we view these attempts as juvenile and manipulative until we realize that, because of her age and status, Malta doesn’t have many choices. I hated Malta in Ship of Magic, so I was surprised to find myself warming up to her during this novel and, by the end of the story, I was amazed that I actually admired her. Some of the other characters, such as Kennit, Amber, and one of the Satrap’s advisors, are even more complex. Even the liveships are much more than they seem.

You might think that an author who spends so much effort on her world and characters might get a little sloppy with plot or language, but Hobb never does. Her plots are tight and complex, and her language is always lovely to read. In addition, I find her work thoughtful and often philosophical. In the LIVESHIP TRADERS trilogy, Hobb explores the pursuit of power and the need for freedom from several angles and she gave me some things to think about.

THE FARSEER SAGA — (1995-2013) Words Like Coins is a short e-story published in 2012. The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince is a related prequel novella published in 2013. Publisher: Young Fitz is the bastard son of the noble Prince Chivalry, raised in the shadow of the royal court by his father’s gruff stableman. He is treated like an outcast by all the royalty except the devious King Shrewd, who has him secretly tutored in the arts of the assassin. For in Fitz’s blood runs the magic Skill — and the darker knowledge of a child raised with the stable hounds and rejected by his family. As barbarous raiders ravage the coasts, Fitz is  growing to manhood. Soon he will face his first dangerous, soul-shattering mission. And though some regard him as a threat to the throne, he may just be the key to the survival of the kingdom.

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LIVESHIP TRADERS –(1998-2000) Bingtown is a hub of exotic trade and home to a merchant nobility famed for its liveships — rare vessels carved from wizardwood, which ripens magically into sentient awareness. The fortunes of one of Bingtown’s oldest families rest on the newly awakened liveship Vivacia. For Althea Vestrit, the ship is her rightful legacy unjustly denied her — a legacy she will risk anything to reclaim. For Althea’s young nephew Wintrow, wrenched from his religious studies and forced to serve aboard ship, Vivacia is a life sentence. But the fate of the Vestrit family — and the ship — may ultimately lie in the hands of an outsider. The ruthless pirate Kennit seeks a way to seize power over all the denizens of the Pirate Isles… and the first step of his plan requires him to capture his own liveship and bend it to his will…

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TAWNY MAN — (2001-2003) For fifteen years FitzChivalry Farseer has lived in self-imposed exile, assumed to be dead by almost all who once cared about him. But that is about to change when destiny seeks him once again. Prince Dutiful, the young heir to the Farseer throne, has vanished and FitzChivalry, possessed of magical skills both royal and profane, is the only one who can retrieve him in time for his betrothal ceremony — thus sparing the Six Duchies profound political embarrassment… or worse. But even Fitz does not suspect the web of treachery that awaits him or how his loyalties to his Queen, his partner, and those who share his magic will be tested to The breaking point.

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THE RAIN WILDS CHRONICLES — (2010-2012) Publisher: Guided by the great blue dragon Tintaglia, they came from the sea: a Tangle of serpents fighting their way up the Rain Wilds River, the first to make the perilous journey to the cocooning grounds in generations. Many have died along the way. With its acid waters and impenetrable forest, it is a hard place for any to survive. People are changed by the Rain Wilds, subtly or otherwise. One such is Thymara. Born with black claws and other aberrations, she should have been exposed at birth. But her father saved her and her mother has never forgiven him. Like everyone else, Thymara is fascinated by the return of dragons: it is as if they symbolise the return of hope to their war-torn world. Leftrin, captain of the liveship Tarman, also has an interest in the hatching; as does Bingtown newlywed, Alise Finbok, who has made it her life’s work to study all there is to know of dragons. But the creatures which emerge from the cocoons are a travesty of the powerful, shining dragons of old. Stunted and deformed, they cannot fly; some seem witless and bestial. Soon, they become a danger and a burden to the Rain Wilders: something must be done. The dragons claim an ancestral memory of a fabled Elderling city far upriver: perhaps there the dragons will find their true home. But Kelsingra appears on no maps and they cannot get there on their own: a band of dragon keepers, hunters and chroniclers must attend them. To be a dragon keeper is a dangerous job: their charges are vicious and unpredictable, and there are many unknown perils on the journey to a city which may not even exist…

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FITZ AND THE FOOL — (2014- ) Publisher: FitzChivalry — royal bastard and former king’s assassin — has left his life of intrigue behind. As far as the rest of the world knows, FitzChivalry Farseer is dead and buried. Masquerading as Tom Badgerlock, Fitz is now married to his childhood sweetheart, Molly, and leading the quiet life of a country squire. Though Fitz is haunted by the disappearance of the Fool, who did so much to shape Fitz into the man he has become, such private hurts are put aside in the business of daily life, at least until the appearance of menacing, pale-skinned strangers casts a sinister shadow over Fitz’s past… and his future. Now, to protect his new life, the former assassin must once again take up his old one….

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsFool's Quest: Book II of the Fitz and the Fool trilogy     Fitz and The Fool: Coloring Book Paperback – May 10, 2018 by Robin Hobb (Author), Manuel Preitano (Illustrator)


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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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One comment

  1. Another one that sounds wonderful. I’ll have to track down this trilogy.

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