February 02, 2006

Ship of Magic, by Robin Hobb

This is the first volume of Hobb's Liveship Traders trilogy, which is set in the same world as the FitzChivalry Farseer books. Between the Six Duchies and Jamaillia, far to the south, lies the Rain Wilds and on their edge the Cursed Shore--a stretch of coast long avoided by ships. To land there is to court madness; and the water from the Rain Wild River sometimes runs with acid that will burn through a ship's hull.

Some time in the past, a band of desperate emigrants from Jamaillia came to the Rain Wild River, and endeavoured to settle there despite all of the difficulties. Today their descendants live in Bingtown on Trader Bay, near the mouth of the river; it said that anything that is can be purchased in Bingtown. There are many mysteries in Bingtown, but the greatest involves wizardwood, and the liveships that are constructed from it. Such ships are always more nimble than normal ships, and after generations of service such a ship actually comes to life and can assist with its own sailing. Each liveship belongs to one of Bingtown's Old Trader families; a liveship will only serve willingly if a member of "their" family is on board.

The action centers on the liveship Vivacia, newly come to awareness on the death of her third Captain, Ephron Vestrit. By rights her third captain should have been one Althea Vestrit, Ephron's daughter; but Althea's family judged her not ready and passed Vivacia to Althea's sister, to be captained by Althea's sister's husband Kyle Haven. Kyle is an experienced captain; but he's no Bingtowner and has no appreciation for the odd creature that is a Bingtown liveship. Much trouble will ensue from his foolishness. Trouble for him, trouble for Althea, and trouble for his despised son, Wintrow, a priest-in-training, who is forced to join Kyle on his voyage since Kyle is not of the blood of the Vestrits and Vivacia requires such a one.

Outwards of the Cursed Shore lie the Pirate Isles, where those who are unwelcome in any of Jamaillia, Bingtown, or Chalced scratch out an existence preying on merchant shipping. One such, Kennit Raven, is working to unite the Pirate Isles under his own rule. Kennit is a shallow man, a foolish man, but an extremely lucky man--he will do anything to see his ambitions realized, he will ride the moment like a surfer no matter where it carries him. One of the pleasures of the book is the increasing discrepancy between how Kennit really is, and how he is perceived due to his actions.

In short, this is a complex book with a cast of thousands, lots of complex relationships, and pots of action. I had to read it slowly; as always, Hobb is extremely hard on her characters, and small doses go down better. It's ultimately rewarding, though, and I'm curious to see how it all plays out.

Posted by Will Duquette at February 2, 2006 06:40 PM