I haven’t had as much time to read recently, so I’m falling a bit behind with my reading challenge and writing up book reviews (I’m hoping to get reviews for both Cryptonomicon and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? written up soon). But just a few weeks ago I started a new job, which means a longer commute on the train and a lot more time to catch up. In the past month I’ve already ploughed through several of the works of Philip K Dick, and read through Ship of Magic, the first book in the Liveship Traders series from the renowned author Robin Hobb.
This trilogy takes place in the same world as most of Robin Hobbs’ other works, and while I haven’t read of those works I really like the idea of a long series of books slowing building up a view of the world piece by piece without you having to have read them in a specific order. The setting of this particular series is along the coast of the main continent in the south of this world, an area filled with islands and small port towns. As you might imagine, the book has a very nautical theme, with a heavy emphasis on life on-board ships and the trials they overcome while sailing, ranging from simple pirates to deadly sea serpents. Personally, I can’t recall any other fantasy series that focuses on this sort of setting, the closest I can think of is The Voyage of the Jerle Shannara, but despite the name relatively little of the story is spent on-board the ship. Perhaps Voyage of the Dawn Treader too, but again that’s not focused too heavily on ship life. Another interesting idea is the Liveships themselves, ships carved out rare wizardwood, sturdier and more swift than any ship built out of more mundane materials. These ships are tied to the old trader families, with members of their bloodline able to form close bonds with it. After 3 generations of captains living and dying aboard them, the ship itself “quickens”, coming to life and carrying the knowledge and experiences of the previous captains within. At this point the ships far surpass the capabilities of any other sailing vessel, able to handle the most dangerous waters with ease and helping to soon pay off the many years of a debt that a family must accept to own such a thing.
There are several different plots running through this book, with all but 1 very closely tied together. The main focus is on the Vestrit family, the owners of the Liveship Vivacia which is ready to quicken as the life of her 3rd captain draws to an end. This plot features the conflicts between the daughter of the dying captain, a young woman by the Althea, and the new captain, a man named Kyle Haven who captains the ship after marrying into the family. Being a foreigner who remains blissfully ignorant (and very dismissive) of the ways of the old trader families, he tends to be at odds with Althea every time they meet. Meanwhile an infamous pirate known as Captain Kemmit is trying to realise his dream of uniting the pirate isles into a kingdom under the watchful eye of a single man, Kemmit himself. While he seems to have a lot of skills necessary to pull this off his main skill is his astounding luck. I’ve never before read a story where a character is as incredibly jammy as Captain Kemmit. If his good luck wasn’t explicitly mentioned (and hopefully explained more later) I would have called shenanigans on just how damn lucky he is throughout this book. There’s also young Wintrow, the son of the new captain who was training to become a priest until he’s called home when the former captain is on his deathbed. He’s easily the most tortured character of the book and you can’t help but feel sorry for him for all the crap that gets thrown his way. After a certain point you almost start to think that the author may be a little vindictive.
The story itself is pretty interesting and very well written, but it takes far, far too long to get going. Nearly half the book is spent setting up the story, and with an 800+ page book that’s not a light amount to get through. Once you get past the halfway point though, the rest of the book shines with wonderfully vivid descriptions of the characters running the ship and their stopovers in port. Some of the twists I really didn’t see coming, and you really feel for how much suffering some of the characters go through. If there’s one thing it’s how one-dimensional the personalities of the main characters are. The arrogant captain is always arrogant, the impulsive, hot-headed former captain’s daughter is always impulsive and hot-headed, the bratty, annoying little girl who wants to grow up too quickly is always bratty and annoying, etc. Granted it usually takes more than the first book in a trilogy for characters to grow and evolve, but it would be nice if they started off with more than one facet to their personality in the beginning.
Overall I enjoyed this book. The characters are a little on the bland side, but the setting is so well-crafted that I didn’t mind it so much. Unlike the other series that I’ve read this year (namely Skulduggery Pleasant and The Golden Compass) I didn’t feel that urge to go straight into the next book to continue the story. I’ll check them out some day, but for now I’m not in any rush.