The Ship of Magic Book Review

By Aundine Janke

The Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb is the first installment in her Liveship Traders Trilogy, an adult epic fantasy where ships come to life. Being passed down through a trader family, the wizardwood ships must have 3 generations die on its deck before it can “quicken” (awaken) and become a true liveship. After Ephron Vestrit dies, his liveship Vivacia quickens and launches a series of events both within the Vestrit family and without. His headstrong daughter Althea has always believed she would inherit Vivacia, as she has sailed upon it with her father for many years. But, it is instead given to her sister Keffria, as she is married and has a family to support. Her husband Kyle is a very controlling and single-minded man, and is now the captain of the Vivacia. But, because he is not of Vestrit blood, he needs a member of the family to be aboard her when she sails. As a result, his eldest son, Wintrow, is pulled out of priesthood. Althea, desperately wanting the ship to be hers, runs away in hopes of proving herself capable. With her is Brashen, the former first mate of Vivacia. The story also follows the rest of the Vestrits back home in Bingtown, where the family fortune is slipping and tensions run high within the family, as well as between old traders and new traders. Less prominent figures in the story are Kennit–a pirate captain who desires to be king of the pirates and own a liveship, Peragon–a blind liveship who has gone mad, and Maulkin–a sea serpent who has visions of the past.

Characters

Robin Hobb does a spectacular job with writing strong characters, which is essential in a story like this. It is 800 pages long, and has almost no central plot. Instead, the story is completely driven by the characters and their individual story arcs. They are stubborn and stuck in their ways, yet by the end of the story they have each transformed completely. Hobb does this in such a way that feels natural and unforced, and I can’t wait to see how these characters continue to grow in the next two novels.

While I definitely had perspectives I enjoyed reading from less, it is impossible for me to pick a favorite character. Each one brought something different to the table. With Wintrow, I loved reading his thoughts on religion, and I especially loved his conversations with Vivacia about his various philosophical thoughts. With Ronica and Keffria back in Bingtown, it was interesting to see a bit of the political climate, as well as the unique relationship between the old trader families and the mysterious, briefly mentioned rainwild traders. Malta, Keffria’s daughter, is an incredibly spoiled and ignorant 13 year old girl, unaware of how her actions affect not only her but her family as well. Through her rebellious actions, she puts a spotlight on the intense expectations placed on members of these prominent families, as well as the overall societal expectations in Bingtown. Peragon, while playing only a small part in this book, gave an interesting insight to the mind of a liveship and hinted at the secrets of the rainwild trade, which I suspect will be important for future installments. Althea was really interesting to read from because of her determination and realizations. She arguably has the most character growth in this first book, and as a result is someone I was the most invested in. Kennit is a plotting and power driven pirate, and while he does good things, he does them for his own personal gain. Maulkin and his fellow sea serpents were a little disorienting to read from, but once I got a grip on what they were doing I was thoroughly intrigued.

Worldbuilding

Besides her work on writing excellent characters, Hobb’s worldbuilding was incredible. We see the world through the eyes of our various characters, who each have completely different perspectives and thoughts. Without infodumping, she managed to write a fully fleshed out world that is complex and diverse. Every culture clashes in one aspect or another, yet they all rely on each other. There is no good or evil, but instead old versus new, and resistance to change. 

Important Notes

Robin Hobb has created the Realm of the Elderling, a multiseries saga, which the Liveship Traders fits into. While some of the different series directly correlate with each other, (ex. Farseer must be read before Fitz and the Fool) the Liveship Traders can be read without having read the other series first, though Farseer is the typical trilogy to begin with and may contain certain easter eggs seen in Liveship Traders.

Despite this being written in the late 1990’s, this series doesn’t read like a stereotypical classic fantasy, filled with overused tropes. It is unique, and a must read for anyone well versed in epic fantasy. Going along those lines though, this is not a trilogy I would recommend to those just getting into the genre.

Overall this was a solid first installment to a trilogy, and I would rate it a 5/5.

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