Final verdict: a great antidote to A Game of Thrones, with brilliant, complicated characters.
My friend introduced to me to Ship of Magic (Liveship Traders, #1) because I’d been complaining about annoying stupid characters. She recommended Robin Hobb in general, but Ship of Magic especially, primarily for Althea Vestrit, our primary protagonist.
One thing I want to point out is that I would have never picked this up on my own. Not for the title, not the cover (yes, I’m disproportionately attracted to pretty covers—there’s a blog post in there somehow), and not even the cover copy. Although Althea is my middle name. But normally not even that.
Thank goodness for my friend, because this book seems to have marked a change in the books I’m reading—after a streak of at best mediocre reading, I’m enjoying it again! (That can’t be attributed entirely to this book, but did contribute to the exhilaration of my reading experience.)
Althea Vestrit is the younger daughter of a liveship trader family. In essence, the elite of colonial Bingtown. Liveships are just that: living ships. But you don’t just build a ship that’s alive, or buy one, it has to be built first of wizard wood, and ‘grow’: that is to say, quicken. A liveship, though, will only quicken after three of its family members die on-deck, through which they gain knowledge and awareness. And a liveship will only respond to a member of the family, especially once it is alive.
And I haven’t even gotten to the story yet.
Robin Hobb has built an incredible, complex world, much of which is gradually revealed throughout the story, naturally and through the characters’ perspectives. The world-building is crucial to the story’s success, because in many ways, its core theme is the clash of worlds, old and new. There isn’t one simple conflict between good and evil or even two families. Bingtown is a colony, only now, they’re being settled again by people who don’t understand the land and customs–and worse, Bingtown has started following the customs of the mainland, even those that just a generation ago would have been too horrifying to contemplate. Now, the newcomers may not understand the reasons for Bingtown’s customs, but the locals won’t explain them either (more on that later).
The conflict of cultures is so important. Worldly Jamaillia is decadent, rich, slave-owning. And the slaves can be anyone: the educated call for particularly high prices. Bingtown once had equal relations to men and women: they’ve borrowed the madonna/whore complex from Jamaillia and now are looking to slavery. But Bingtown has a strange relationship with magic and the people up the river who make it.
Back to Althea. Because she’s the natural daughter of the Vestrit’s, who own a liveship just one death away from quickening, Althea fully expects to be the next captain. After all, she’s been sailing with her father for years, and her older sister is married: settled with children. But as the summary states so baldly, Althea doesn’t get Vivacia, her brother-in-law does.
Ways in which Ship of Magic exceeds A Game of Thrones:
- The characters matter. The majority of characters in A Game of Thrones are AT BEST observers, and often not even good at that; all the characters (especially viewpoint characters) in Ship of Magic have agency: they are making things happen, everything they do affects the plot, the story. In A Game of Thrones, the plot is happening around the characters—when they could make a difference, they don’t, because characters get in the way of the plot. That could work, but only if the reader has a sense that characters caused the plot in the first place. Ship of Magic only takes place because of decisions made generations ago, and how the current people are trying to live around and with those decisions. There is a deep, complicated back story that at no time takes over what’s happening now, but only makes it possible. Can I say how much I’ve missed this?
- A Game of thrones suffered from odd, arbitrary chapter breaks that always followed only one character (ideally, and when Martin didn’t abruptly drop into omniscient when he forget what he was doing) and didn’t follow the same characters in a row BECAUSE. The chapter breaks and POV changes in Ship of Magic are based on the timeline and pacing. And they don’t just skip the big scenes to sum up later.
- The characters in Ship of Magic are so much better. In fact they’re so awesome, I’ll have to get back to this.
- The women are just as complex as the men! and just as active! and compelling! and have equal textual representation in a sexist world! and there’s no creepy, overdone euphemisms for genitalia! and no glorified, underage, fetishized rape scenes! uhhhh….I feel like I shouldn’t have to expect such things, but I am comparing it strictly to GoT here.
- This is also a vaguely historically based world with only rare magic. Only here it’s embedded from the beginning, and while not understood and distrusted by the inhabitants of the world, it doesn’t follow the pattern of: 100 pages of ambiguity 1 sentence maybe? (x3) 100 pages ambiguity full-on firewalking and suckling dragons!
Like A Game of Thrones, Ship of Magic has several major plot threads (approximately eight, some embedded in the ‘world’ arcs), all given roughly equal treatment, and a great many POV characters (at least eight). I wonder if there’s something to those numbers. and Martin is praised because he’s willing to kill off ‘anyone’, which just makes me suspect a paucity of decent literature in the fantasy section. Ship of Magic made me care about the characters, even without ever having a POV of their own, and then they died.
Getting into more spoiler-y territory, I loved the conflict between Ronica (Althea’s mother) and Kyle (her brother-in-law).Kyle really seems like just your standard sub-boss evil. In most novels The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicle, #1), he’d be petty and cruel, and basically the antagonist until the confrontation with the real bad guy happens. In some ways, Kyle is all of those things. But his main threat is in how he threatens, and represents the threat, to the liveship trader way of life. And Ronica loathes him for it. But he’s been her son-in-law for 15 years, IIRC, and no one in the family has tried to make him understand these traditions and why things are the way they are in Bingtown. There’s a lot of hidden history that’s gradually being revealed, but the locals don’t discuss it amongst themselves, much less outsiders like Kyle. At least once, the truth has been actively hidden from him. These are cultures clashing because their people (on any side) cannot understand comprehend a way of life different from their own.
Wintrow, Althea’s oldest nephew, lived with the priests since infancy, because in Bingtown, it’s an honor. Wintrow can’t wait to be a priest. But since Kyle captains the Vivacia, he needs a family member by blood on board, especially now that Vivacia is conscious. Wintrow’s struggles: to stay safe, to stay sane—my heart BLED for him.
Btw: Hobb has built an incredible, convincing fictional religion.
Kennit is about as villainous as a villain can be. As I said in a forum: “[he] knows he’s not a good guy, goes around plotting like mad, but is just going after what he wants in any way he can. He knows he’s not a good guy, but doesn’t care: he just wants power. He also goes around going good deeds, but evilly…He’s a pirate freeing slaves because then they’ll voluntarily be his army to help him take over the world. And he’s surrounded by people who are unbearably loyal to him: even his sentient charm fashioned in his image hates him and doesn’t think he deserves what he has.”
One thing that Hobb does beautifully that Martin fails entirely, is have a focus to her narrative. Althea’s story is central to the unifying thread. All of these characters have very important stories of their own, but Althea’s is going to be right in the middle of it all.
One note about the characters: sometimes they aren’t all good. Or bad. (Unless it’s Kennit) They can be whiny, infuriating, annoying, ignorant, just-plain-stupid, and often wrong. For instance, Althea’s quest to retake the Vivacia? Well, first she has to learn that she wasn’t qualified to captain a vessel on her own, that when she traveled with her father, she was playing at sailoring. So she goes off on her own to learn—and learn she does. Slowly. Which is possibly the best part.
Now that I’ve been working on this for two hours, I want to touch on a subject I know is important to many of my GR friends—and the reviewers I follow who have no idea who I am: slut shaming.
THERE ISN’T ANY!
First you have Malta, Althea’s niece, all of thirteen years old, *IIRC. O Good Lord, Malta. She takes the place of Martin’s Sansa: obsessed with boys, rather stupid. Only Malta specifically wants sex. Preferably before babies and marriage, because she doesn’t want to end up with an icky husband. Is she too young for this? Hell yes, she’s spoiled rotten, doesn’t understand how her own society works, and despite her interest, completely ignorant of what said sex would actually mean. Sansa, I just hated, but while I wanted to smack Malta upside the head, I also ached for her. She is so completely unaware of how vulnerable she is—and she does have to work at ignoring it too. Unlike Althea, she retreats from what scares her, what’s hard (although Althea has her moments), and Keffria (her mother) and Ronica are only just learning how much they’ve neglected to teach her.
As for Althea—
Spoilers! Please click carefully, because this section is so important to her character development! It wouldn’t ruin the book, but it would color the reading experience.
After Althea goes off to learn sailing while disguised as a boy (explained in text) she sleeps with Brashen (well, okay, it’s clear he’s a love interest from the cover copy) while both are impaired. She’s concussed and they’re both drunk and high, I think. He might be concussed too. It turns out, despite being ‘upper class’ in this society, and their expectations for women, she’s had sex before. The first time when she was fourteen under skeevy circumstances. When she goes home to tell her sister, Keffria makes her get a charm to prevent pregnancy and STDs, assuming her sister is easy. It’s the betray of trust that Althea has a problem with, she doesn’t think of herself that way. In fact, she’s NOT damaged by the experience, and she knows it’s supposed to be pleasurable, so she seeks it out herself, occasionally. But it’s not a flaw of her character that she’s sexually active, and while other characters may not like it, it’s never a view condoned by the text. Thought you guys might like that.
I didn’t get to this point in my GR review (which is is), but Hobb can also write convincing ‘alien’ consciousness. This is most evident with the living ships—which aren’t human, but have to balance how much they owe to the humanity that created them and reconcile their own free will. There’s also the sea serpents, which I don’t understand yet, and are sentient, but not human whatsoever.
I just want to get everyone to read it themselves! It’s just that awesome!