Hearkening back to the political and environmental challenges faced by the founding fathers of the American Revolution, Robin Hobb's Liveship Traders series tells a story of family grit and emerging nationhood that would be compelling even if it were lifted out of its fantasy setting. That the story takes place within a magical world where ships come to life, sea-serpents terrorize the oceans, and enchanted trinkets of a lost Elderling race are regularly discovered, makes the story more than compelling -- it makes it an extraordinary high fantasy saga.
The swashbuckling epic begins in Bingtown, where the oldest and most distinguished families were once hardy pioneers who braved the seas and settled the dangerous coast of Trader Bay to found a colony for the monarchy of Jamaillia. In exchange for their bravery and the risks they took in taming the land, they were awarded grants and trade monopolies that helped them to rise into the merchant nobility class. Sailing on ships, made of wizardwood, which ripen into sentient awareness, the Traders helped Bingtown become a thriving city featuring exotic trade and robust traditions. But a corrupt new ruler in Jamaillia is setting Bingtown's grants and privileges aside. Pirating is becoming more prominent and more successful, sightings of the mysterious sea serpents are increasing, and slavery, though illegal in Bingtown, is flourishing.
Talk of revolution is in the air, and it is against the backdrop of this tumultuous political maelstrom that the story of the Vestrit family is told. Their changing fortunes reflect those of all the other old trader families in Bingtown. When the family patriarch dies upon the deck of the Vestrit liveship, the Vivacia, it quickens to life in the midst of a family power struggle. Althea Vestrit feels that the liveship is more than just a vessel; Althea considers the Vivacia to be a living member of her family that she has bonded with for life. So when the ship is given over to her brother-in-law to help bolster the family fortunes, Althea makes it her mission to get the ship back. While Althea would do just about anything just to serve aboard the Vivacia, her softhearted cousin Wintrow finds ship life to be a misery. Plucked from the monastery and plunged into a life for which he is innately unsuited, Wintrow's misery is exacerbated when the family decides that it will use the liveship to engage in slave trading in order to pay off the family debts.
The decision to trade in slaves catapults the Vestrit family into a tangled web of intrigue that involves the building of new nations, piracy on the high-seas, civil insurrection, liveships gone mad, and discoveries about the sea serpents that may unleash a new race upon the world; all while putting the future viability of liveships in doubt. The first book, Ship of Magic, puts all of these plotlines on the table, luring the reader into the world and weaving magic into the story so subtly and seamlessly as to make the reader forget that she's reading a fantasy novel. The second installment, Mad Ship, continues the relentless drive, adding more characters and more complications to the mix with such a fine touch that the stage never seems too crowded.
Yet, in spite of the emphasis on a complex and driving plotline, Hobb doesn't give short shrift to characterization. In fact, the development of diverse and fascinating characters may be one of her greatest strengths as an author. Her heroes are deeply flawed, and her villains are extremely sympathetic. For example, while the reader quickly comes to identify with the plight of Althea Vestrit, it soon becomes obvious that Althea has vastly overestimated herself, her rights, and the benefits to her family were she to have inherited the family liveship. She often acts rashly and exacerbates her troubles with her own poor judgments.
Althea's love interest, Brashen Trell, is the disinherited scion of another Trader Family. In spite of his worthy ambitions, his love for Althea, and his general good-hearted loyalty, Brashen is crass, self-pitying, and pedestrian. Also, Brashen is so enamored of alcohol and pleasure drugs that it's easy to understand why he was disowned in the first place. Althea's cousin Wintrow, a gentle religious prodigy, wins the reader's affection for his goodness. But his flaws, too, are immediately evident. Gullible, timid, and ultimately a follower, Wintrow often struggles against his own weaknesses. Sometimes he overcomes them; sometimes he doesn't. Through his aimless malaise, the reader recognizes the reality of adolescent tumult portrayed vividly on the page. The Paragon is a pitiable liveship that is thought to be cursed; he is so petulant, dangerous and deranged that the reader loves him, but never trusts him for a moment.
However, it isn't merely her ability to give real flaws to her characters that makes Hobb a master of characterization -- it's her ability to transform. Althea's mother, Ronica, first appears to be a bitterly selfish woman who ruins the life of her daughter for financial security. But with this series, first impressions can be deceiving. Ronica soon emerges as one of the major heroines of the story. She may be too attached to the Old World and her traditions, and she occasionally doesn't see things clearly enough to make the best choices, but Ronica has true grit and stature. When asked why she's in a sour mood, Ronica unapologetically declares, "Because anything out of the ordinary rattles me, that's why." And the reader pities her, because everything in her world has become out of the ordinary. Thus, she serves as a useful marker to show how much the political situation is changing Bingtown, and she often serves as the moral compass of the story.
Althea's cousin Malta is similarly presented to the reader so as to inspire such hatred for her that it's difficult to believe that Hobb could turn it around. But turn it around she does. The reader watches Malta grow from a spoiled brat into an admirable young woman. In truth, Hobb favors all of her female characters. Her human females are stalwart survivors. The Ophelia is so affectionately meddlesome that it's difficult to remember that she's just a ship. Even the villainous women are of a strong and self-reliant cast.
But there is no character that Hobb favors more than her pirate captain. Captain Kennit may be one of the most captivating villains of all time. By allowing readers to be first exposed to the treacherous workings of Kennit's mind, and then allowing them to see him through the eyes of his many admirers, Hobb dares the reader to judge the pirate captain harshly. This dare is made with a wink and a nudge, as if Hobb knows that her readers will find themselves making any excuse for Kennit's reprehensible behavior simply so that they can continue to root for him.
Make no mistake. Captain Kennit is a bad man, and his villainy is not the forgivable kind. But the reader never stops wanting to forgive him even in the face of his atrocities. Because of that, some have accused Hobb of sending the wrong messages by so masterfully directing affection towards him. However, most readers find the incongruity to be an unusual and guilty pleasure not found since, perhaps, Octavia Butler's Wild Seed.
This odd pleasure is enhanced by Hobb's general bravery as an author. Too few authors will allow main characters, or even beloved minor characters, to die. Even fewer will allow their characters to suffer debilitating losses. Hobb isn't afraid to kill. More, she isn't afraid to maim, disfigure, or transform. This grim devotion to realistic consequences ensures that the reader cannot predict what will happen next, and can feel no security in the ultimate outcome of the story.
Ship of Destiny, the finale to the series, is due out in paperback this November, and the terrible secret of the liveships is finally revealed. The once beguiling city of Bingtown is war torn and ravaged, three generations of Vestrit women fight for survival, and a once glorious species is at the brink of extinction. All these plots tangle into a masterful tale that leaves the reader wanting more. As if to make up for the depressing ending of her previous Farseer Trilogy and the general glum realism of all of her works, Hobb does her best to give the series as happy a conclusion as she can. She weaves all the various plots of the story into a climactic showdown between the Paragon and the Vivacia in which all the major mysteries of the series are answered.
And while she seems to rush to the climax, the fact remains that the conclusion is one that actually satisfies. She does leave the reader apprehensive about the future and the dawning of this new age. For instance, the future of the Pirate Isles is far from settled. Furthermore, the ultimate consequences of some discoveries are left dangling. Yet, the pacing of the series seems to be the most frequent complaint.
While Ship of Magic sets up an epic background, the tale seems at first to be focused on Althea. As the series expands with Mad Ship, the lives and destinies of a host of other characters come to the fore. While it's necessary to give each character a place on the stage in order to tell the wider political story, the occasionally jarring shifts in point of view seem to minimize the roles of earlier characters, as if Hobb became bored with them.
The end of the series neatly resolves all of the major story arcs, but the last book may have been too condensed and too neat. Characters are saved or killed efficiently, and the outcome of the civil insurrection is summarized briefly. The last book of the series is even noticeably shorter in length than the other two, and certain characters remain enigmatic. For example, the character of Amber only makes sense if one has read Hobb's earlier books, set in the same world. If the reader hasn't read the Farseer Trilogy, Amber's entire place in the story will be annoyingly mystifying.
Ship of Destiny makes some rather startling revelations, and the reader hungers to see the natural and psychological implications of these revelations upon the characters. But it seems that Hobb doesn't have time to explore those psychological ramifications because she has so many loose ends to tie up all at once. Perhaps if she'd resolved each plot point in a separate scene, it might have been an even more decadent read.
But my complaints are minor, and in light of the overall impression the story makes, the books are well worth reading, and deserving of the overwhelming praise they have received. Hobb has truly earned the reverential comparisons to past and present masters that have emerged from the fantasy community. By the end of the series, readers will be loathe to part company with these characters. Hobb has left herself a few openings to return to them if she likes. And, because the world Hobb has created is an extraordinary, magical place, rich with detail and full of people real enough that you miss them, I am left hoping she returns to them soon.