Ship of Magic: Brilliant characterization

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsbook review Liveship Traders Ship of MagicShip of Magic by Robin Hobb

I doubt that there are many lovers of epic fantasy that wouldn’t list Robin Hobb as one of their favorite epic fantasy authors. Hobb creates wonderfully detailed worlds and characters that are complex and convincing. Her best-loved stories are those that star FitzChivalry Farseer, the bastard son of the man who abdicated the throne in the Six Duchies. Fitz’s best friend is a strange man he calls “The Fool.” We meet Fitz and the Fool in THE FARSEER SAGA, the first trilogy of the REALMS OF THE ELDERLINGS series. Their story continues years later in the TAWNY MAN trilogy and then, again after many years have passed, starts up again in Hobb’s latest trilogy, FITZ AND THE FOOL. The Fool never really tells Fitz what he does during the long periods of time that they are apart. Robin Hobb’s readers, however, can discover some of the answers to that mystery in the LIVESHIP TRADERS trilogy which takes place (and was published) between FARSEER and TAWNY MAN.

The first LIVESHIP TRADERS book, Ship of Magic (1998) begins a few years after the events of Assassin’s Quest (the last FARSEER book) and takes place in Bingtown, the Pirate Isles, and the Rain Wilds (which you can learn more about in Hobb’s RAIN WILDS CHRONICLES). All but one of the characters are new to the series at this point (assuming you’ve only read FARSEER so far), but you’ll see some of them again in future ELDERLINGS series. In fact, LIVESHIP TRADERS explains a lot about the origin of dragons, their relationship to serpents, and the denizens of the Rain Wilds. This information would be helpful (but not necessary) to know before you read TAWNY MAN and FITZ AND THE FOOL.

The best part of any book by Robin Hobb is the characterization. Hobb’s characters never conform to a stereotype and they are never too good or too bad to be believable. They, like real people, have traits and habits that are both admirable and unpleasant. They, like real people, grow as they deal with the triumphs and traumas that Hobb puts them through, yet they, like real people, still retain their natural temperaments and personalities. Hobb is a genius this way.

In Ship of Magic, there are several main characters who each have distinct goals, dreams, and troubles (I say “main characters” instead of “protagonists” because it’s impossible to think of any of Hobb’s characters as simply a “good guy” or “bad guy”):

Althea Vestrit, an ambitious and independently-minded young woman, is distraught because she expected to inherit Vivacia, her family’s sentient liveship. But because the Vestrit family is enduring a financial crisis and the ship is their livelihood, Althea’s father thought it was best to give command of Vivacia to Kyle Haven, the misogynistic husband of Keffria, Althea’s reliable and boring older sister. Althea’s father didn’t know that Kyle plans to start trading in the most profitable commodity available: slaves.

Malta Vestrit is Althea’s spoiled, shallow and sneaky niece (daughter of Kyle and Keffria) who is disgruntled because the family’s income has dwindled. Ronica is the competent and commanding mother and grandmother who is trying to keep the family afloat while mourning her dead husband. Wintrow, the son of Keffria and Kyle, is angry that he’s been called home from his monastery so he can help Kyle sail Vivacia. He’s especially upset (as is Althea) when he finds out they’ll be turning Vivacia into a slaver.

Brashen Trell, a competent captain who was disinherited by his family due to his unseemly lifestyle, was Vivacia’s first mate under Althea’s father, but Kyle has replaced him, so now he’s on his own. Kennit is a megalomaniacal pirate who plans to steal a liveship and become king of the Pirate Isles. Etta sees herself as Kennit’s favorite whore and nothing more. Paragon is a liveship who went crazy, killed his crew (twice) and has been beached by the family that owns him. Amber is a strange artisan who wants to buy Paragon.

In addition to these characters, there are many minor characters, including a “tangle” of sea serpents who are looking for a serpent they call “She Who Remembers” who, they hope, carries their memories of their race. If they don’t find her soon, their race’s proud heritage will be lost forever. The minor characters, by the way, are just as well-drawn as Hobb’s main characters.

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We see the world from most of these characters’ perspectives and Hobb gives them plenty of time for introspection. Some readers will lose patience with this because the plot is not fast-paced (especially in the later books). Actually, a slow plot is something that I would normally complain about but, in this case, I enjoyed these complex characters so much, and found their development so realistic and interesting, that I didn’t mind. (It also may help that this was a re-read for me and I felt nostalgic about this series.)

But even with the intense focus on character development — and all of the main characters are significantly changed by the events in the story — Hobb gives us plenty of action in Ship of Magic, including ship battles and deadly sea monster attacks. Characters get sick, are tortured, have body parts amputated, and die in various horrible ways. There is also plenty of political intrigue and romance. This series is definitely “character-driven” as we like to say, but the plot is also complex, fascinating, and tight.

I listened to the audio version of Ship of Magic which was produced by Tantor Audio and read by Anne Flosnik. She does a nice job with each of the character voices. The audiobook is 35.5 hours long, though I listened to it at double speed.

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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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  1. I read the first book of this trilogy quite recently and loved it. I keep meaning to start the second book but must admit I’m slightly intimidated by how much it’ll weigh me down carrying it around! I completely agree about how strong Hobbs’ characters are. I thought Wintrow’s character development was particularly believable :)

  2. Paragon sounds scary!

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