Bingtown is a hub of exotic trade and home to a merchant nobility famed for its liveships–rare vessels carved fromwizardwood, 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….
Robin Hobb’s Soldier Son trilogy was my introduction to fantasy. I then went on to read both the Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies. I loved them all. Since then, Robin Hobb has remained one of my favorite authors and I find reading her books to be quite a comfort. After a somewhat failed attempt at enjoying Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, I needed a book that I knew I would enjoy to cleanse my reading palette. So off I went to read the first novel in the Liveship Traders trilogy.
Ship of Magic is set in the same world as the Farseer trilogy but has very little to do with it. It focuses instead on a completely new fantasy setting centered around the Vestritt family, an Old Trader family in a tough situation. The Vestritt family needs to increase their trading profits in order to pay off a Liveship or face harsh penalties. A Liveship is a large merchant vessel made out of a material called “wizardwood”. These ships actually become sentient after three generations of their owners’ families die while on board the ship. A bit of a departure from other Robin Hobb books I have read, Ship of Magic has multiple main characters and viewpoints. Early on the book mostly follows Althea Vestritt, a young woman who grew up sailing on the Vivacia, her family’s liveship, while her father was captain. After Althea’s father dies on board Vivacia in the beginning chapters of the book, the liveship “quickens”, becoming a sentient being. Though Althea always dreamed of captaining Vivacia after her father’s passing and the ship’s quickening, she is not allowed to continue to sail aboard her due to circumstances outside her control.
As I stated above, there is more than one main character and viewpoint from which this story is told. What’s cool about these characters is that there aren’t really any protagonists or antagonists in the book. I think there are characters likely to be piled into each category, but Hobb has really left the decision up to the reader in most cases. There is Kennitt, the ambitious pirate with his eyes set on commandeering a Liveship and becoming “King of the pirates”, and Malta, Kennit’s niece, who is more interested in boys and fashion than any of the family financial issues. What I’m trying to get at is that the characters are not cookie-cutter or generic, but that each has their own personality, wants and needs.
You should understand what you’re getting into if you decide to read this book though. This book is 800+ pages and the other two in the trilogy are about the same length. Also, Ship of Magic doesn’t tie up any of the plot lines in the story, so you’ll have to read on in order to get a sense of completion. While this series hasn’t captured me quite as quickly as The Farseer Trilogy did, the story does pick up and has convinced me to continue reading. I will note that I am slightly biased to like Robin Hobb though, and may have subconsciously enjoyed this more than I would have had it been written by another author because of this fact. Either way, I think it’s definitely worth reading if you are a fan of fantasy from multiple viewpoints and looking for a setting a bit different than your standard fantasy fare.