Themes Explored: morality, happiness, pirates, magic, sentient wood, trading, nautical culture, bartering system, familial relationships, ambition, family conflict, personal struggles, sword play
Synopsis: Wizardwood, a sentient wood. The most precious commodity in the world. Like many other legendary wares, it comes only from the Rain River Wilds.
But how can one trade with the Rain Wilders, when only a liveship fashioned from wizardwood can negotiate the perilous waters of the Rain River? Rare and valuable a liveship will quicken only when three members, from successive generations, have died on board. Althea waits for the ship that she loves more than anything else in the world to awaken. Only to discover that the Vivacia has been signed away in her father’s will to her brutal brother-in-law, Kyle Haven…
Others plot to win or steal a liveship. The Paragon, known by many as the Pariah, went mad, turned turtle, and drowned his crew. Now he lies blind, lonely, and broken on a deserted beach. (Adapted from Goodreads)
Review: Ship of Magic is the first book Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders Series. The world of the Liveship traders is the same as the one Hobb created in her Farseer Trilogy. This series revolves around the concept of Liveships, sentient and magical sailing ships that families mortgage generations in order to own one. The main event forming the catalyst of the narrative is the “quickening” of the liveship Vivacia. A ship quickens after three family members of separate generations have died on board. Once this happens the ship becomes “alive” and assumes the memories of the deceased and becomes a unique sentient being. This is an interesting concept and Hobb explores it quite skillfully. Especially the comparison between Vivacia and the insane ship Paragon.
This novel details the rising and falling fortune of the Vestrit family. They own the Liveship Vivacia, which is made out of the mystical substance known as Wizardwood. Captain Vestrit’s grandmother had ordered the liveship Vestrit and the family is still heavily indebted to the Rain Wild Trader family who sold them the Wizardwood. Ship of Magic is the first book of the Liveship Traders series and follows the fortunes of the Vestrit family. Liveships are so valuable because they are the only vessels capable of crossing the Rain Wild River. Everyone wants to trade to trade with the Rain Wilders, who plundered rare and valuable goods from the Ancient Elderling ruin. The narrative moves rather quickly until Vivacia quickens. At this point the narrative slows significantly and Hobb focuses on character development over pacing. Eventually the family in fighting drives a wedge between the members of the Vistrits family and they are torn apart. There is a distinctly nautical feel to the narrative, but it is not overwhelming. Most of the book occurs in port towns or the open sea. This story could easily take place on land, sea, sky, or space. However, the nautical setting is a unique setting for a fantasy series.
Unlike the Farseer Trilogy, there is no specific main protagonist. There are several characters who take center stage throughout the novel. This includes the viewpoint of the liveship Vivacia, who quickens into a sentential being in the middle of an unhealthy situation. Althea Vestrit is the willful younger daughter of the old ship’s captain. She thought she was going to inherit Vivacia but is devastated when she learns her father sold the ship. Brashen Tell is a ship’s mate and the disowned younger son of a powerful trader family. Kyle Haven, Althea’s brother-in-law, is the new Captain of Vivacia. He kicks Althea off and drags his son, Wintrow, out of a monastery and onto Vivacia. The liveship will only function properly if there is Vestrit blood on board. Then there is Kennit, a pirate who is determined to obtain a liveship and become the King of the Pirates. And then there is Paragon, a beached liveship who was abandoned because he is considered unlucky and insane.
Other characters include some alien life forms and serpent-like beings who play an important place in the middle of the narrative. With only one exception, Wintrow’s headstrong and dull sister Malta, each of the characters are extremely well developed. None of the characters are fully good or fully evil, there is a lot of grey area. Most people are not fully good or evil, so it was refreshing to read a novel where none of the characters are overly perfect or completely corrupted. Hobb does a fantastic job of making all the characters seem real. They all possess unique behaviors and personalities. All of them are flawed, make mistakes, and do not always say the correct phrases at the right moment. Overall, the variety of characters is enjoyable. Hobb jumps between character points-of-view including human, non-human, main characters, and secondary characters. However, it is not nearly as extensive POV jumping as in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire Series.
Hobb’s strongest talent lies in her eye for detail. Ship of Magic is an intricate novel brimming with sword play, intrigue, conflict, personal struggles, and an undercurrent of magic. There are intriguing hints about a dark secret interwoven throughout the narrative. She also keeps the readers guessing about the outcome and throws in new twists to keep things interesting. However, the novel has some of the slowest pacing I have ever read. While the writing is beautiful and complex, the pacing drags the whole narrative down. The magic is well thought out and rather unique amongst the crowded shelves of fantasy fiction. And the characters are extremely well developed. This is definitely an adult novel and there are a lot of adult themes, so be aware of that and when reading. I would have enjoyed Ship of Magic more if it was about 150 pages shorter.
Ship of Magic, Voyager, 1998, ISBN 9780006498858