Mad Ship: Complex characters struggle for power and freedom

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews Robin Hobb Liveship Traders 2: Mad ShipMad Ship by Robin Hobb

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.


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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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