The Liveship Traders

If you're anything like me, you have at least a few books lying around the house that you bought a long time ago but never got around to actually reading. For me, up until last month, that book was Robin Hobb's Ship of Magic.

I picked it up when it first came out in paperback on the strength of Hobb's earlier series, The Farseer Trilogy, which I had liked quite a bit even though the ending had left me a bit cold. Nevertheless, my aversion to starting an unfinished series was strong enough that I ended up sticking Ship of Magic on the shelf and ignoring it for almost eleven years. Last month, I finally got to the point where I'd read every piece of fiction left in the house, and decided to finally give it a go.

Before I did that, though, I went back and re-read The Farseer Trilogy, figuring that since this new series was a follow-on set in the same world, I should re-familiarize myself with the background. In some ways, that turned out to be a help, because I would otherwise have missed a number of references in the new series to events in the old one, references that weren't exactly necessary to understand the new series, but which added significant depth to the world and some of the characters.

On the other hand, plowing through all six books in rapid succession, it was impossible not to compare the two series, and I found The Liveship Traders somewhat lacking in comparison to its predecessor.

As I mentioned, The Liveship Traders is set in the same world as The Farseer Trilogy, starting ten years or so after the events of the first series. Rather than continuing the story of the original characters, though, the new series moves to a different part of the world and tells a story that is only tangentially related to the first.

As the series opens, we are introduced to the Vestrits, a trading family from the port city of Bingtown. The Vestrits are the owners of a liveship--a ship carved from magic wood that imbues the vessel with a life of its own, most noticeable in the ship's animate figurehead. The protagonist, Althea Vestrit, returns home from a voyage on her family ship, only to have her father die and her inheritance--ownership and captaincy of the ship--taken from her. Althea leaves, determined to regain her ship and make a name for herself. From there, we're brought along on a tale of full of nautical adventure, pirate battles, and even war, beneath the surface of which lurk secrets from ages past.

Now, you'd think this sort of thing would be right up my alley, and in a lot of ways you'd be right. I'm a huge sucker for Age of Sail maritime adventures, as evidenced by my love of C. S. Forester and Patrick O'Brian. Combine that with the fantastic setting, epic plot, and excellent action scenes, and it should be perfect for me.

The problem was that too much of the characterization felt forced or flat to me. Part of that came from the more distributed focus--unlike The Farseer Trilogy, which featured only one point-of-view character--The Liveship Traders bounces back and forth between half a dozen or more perspectives, including all of the main antagonists. There's a lot of potential with a structure like that because it gives us a chance to sympathize or at least understand everyone, even the "bad guys." Unfortunately, nearly all of the antagonists seemed almost cartoonishly unreasonable, making it next to impossible for me to connect with them.

Things did eventually turn around with most of the important characters, but it took so long for that to happen--well into the second book--that I would never have gotten to it if not for my inability to walk away from a story I haven't finished.

Still, I don't want to sound too down on the series, because as difficult as I found the first volume, so much is paid off--both plot-wise and character-wise--by the end, that it was ultimately a very satisfying experience. It's of particular note how skillfully Hobb works the plot, starting with a relatively small-scale story of family drama and nautical adventure and building it into an epic, world-changing saga. As long as you're the kind of person who can commit to a series for the long haul, who doesn't need resolutions early and often, I'd say this one is definitely worth your time.

Ship of Magic

Started: 10/6/2010 | Finished: 10/13/2010

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Mad Ship

Started: 10/19/2010 | Finished: 10/26/2010

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Ship of Destiny

Started: 10/27/2010 | Finished: 11/1/2010

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Excellent observations, Mike.

I agree, but had a slightly different reading experience because I found that the slackness of intensity and slower build in the first book was a welcome change of pace after the Farseer books. And I may have even read them after I read the Tawny Man books which are very intense.