Ship of Magic, by Robin Hobb
Posted February 17, 2016on:
published in 1998
where I got it: purchased new
It’s been a while since I read a Robin Hobb. Like many Hobb fans, I devoured the Farseer trilogy, and then wasn’t sure where to go from there. Most of her trilogies take place in the same universe, and each trilogy follows different characters. Some need to be read in order (read the Farseer trilogy before reading Fitz the Fool, for example), but the Liveship Traders trilogy I think can be read as a complete stand alone.
After Farseer trilogy, I jumped over to the Soldier Son trilogy, which is set in a different universe, but one that feels very much like her primary universe. Hobb has this thing about completely deconstructing her characters – forcing them to a precipice built of self loathing, doubt, and full scale rejection. It forces the character to do something they never would have done otherwise. The horrible things that happen to them give them strength towards what is coming next. Or Something. It’s like tough love to the n’th degree. I couldn’t get past what happens in the second Soldier Son book, Forest Mage. It hit too close to home. It’s been four years since Forest Mage, and I’m finally ready to pick up another Hobb.
Ship of Magic takes place in Bingtown, which is a merchant city. Originally a city of refugees, some families settled in the harbor town of Bingtown, while others settled up the Rain Wilds river, and over the generations a trading empire was born. For the most part, the story follows the Vestrit family, a prominent trading family. On his deathbed, Ephron Vestrit decides his eldest daughter Keffria and her husband Kyle will inherit the family’s Liveship and trading business, leaving his younger daughter, Althea with nearly nothing. It’s a decision that nearly tears the family apart – Althea has sailed with her father, she knows every inch of the family liveship Vivacia, she’s already built relationships with the other ship captains and merchants in other cities, she assumed the ship captaincy would go to her on her father’s death. Kyle on the other hand, knows little of the Bingtown traditions, and he certainly has no understanding of the life cycle of a Liveship or the contracts made to obtain such a ship.
Built of Rain Wilds wood imbued with magic, Liveships quicken over time, awakening when a certain event in their lives occurs. Vivacia awakens after Ephron’s death, with all the memories of her owners, and like a child, she is naive, curious, friendly, nervous around strangers, and easily hurt. A member of the Vestrit family must always be aboard her.
Ship of Magic combines a city needing to come to terms with the loss of traditions, an economy straining from growth in unexpected areas, an all-encompassing religion coming to terms with a magic that exists independently from that religion, questions of free will and slavery, secret ancient agreements bound in blood, and just a damn cool world. And I loved everything about the book except the human characters, who I found whiny and unlikeable.
Althea and her nephew Wintrow spend most of the book whining and in denial, and Wintrow’s father is so over the top that I expected him to start twirling a mustache. The human character I sympathized most with was Althea’s mother, who has spent her whole life trying to do what’s best for her family, only to now see it crumbling around her. I get that Hobb does horrible things to her characters, I get that. I know everything that happens in this book is set up for Althea and Wintrow to be strengthened so they can face whatever is coming. And knowing Hobb, whatever is coming for the two of them will be epically awesome and terrible and kick me in the feels. But, I just didn’t care for either one of them, I had very little sympathy for them, and if I need to convince myself to give a shit about what happens to a books protagonists, that’s a problem. Wintrow is being pulled towards the priesthood and away from it at the same time, which puts him in a great position to the person that brings the Liveship Magic and religion together peacefully (who knows if that will happen), and Althea could be the return of great female ship captains (Bingtown used to have a ton of women leaders. It’s gone out of fashion with the influx of families who follow different gender role expectations). There’s also the connection between the Vestrit family and a certain Rain Wilds family, which has, shall we say . . interesting and far-reaching implications.
So, the human characters were the star of this show, but annoying. The Liveships, on the other hand, were amazing. The whole idea of Liveships is cool as hell. They’re ships, but they are alive, and they talk, and they have feelings and anxieties, and they are the only thing between the sailors and merchants and a watery death. If this was a science fiction novel, the liveship would be a human mind that had been born uploaded into a spaceship. Human thought processes, but no experience of ever having been human.
Beached around the bay from Bingtown is the liveship Paragon. Considered crazy, he can’t be dismantled, but he can be beached. Allowed to see the ocean, but not allowed to touch it, Paragon lives in constant view of his livelihood. Humans couldn’t have come up with a better torture for him if they tried. Yes, he killed his family, yes, he killed his crew. But why? And the speed at which he was quickened couldn’t possibly have been good for him. It would be so therapeutic for him to just go swimming in the ocean, to do what comes natural. Paragon fills me with questions, and I need to know the answers.
With Vivacia under his command, Kyle takes to the merchant life. He knows nothing of tradition, nothing of family agreements, he only cares for profit, and in this new economy the most profitable commodity is slaves. Everyone but Kyle is psychologically disturbed by the idea of selling human beings and of the entire idea of slavery. Which leads into this fascinating dance around other conversations, and I like how Hobb calls the dance steps. The slave trade brings down the cost of goods, which means merchants have to find other means of making a profit, which means they are looking for more profitable commodities. . . it’s a vicious disgusting circle, and Kyle sees it as his salvation.
Wintrow was educated in the priesthood. The magic that created Vivacia doesn’t fit into his worldview, so he struggles with accepting her. Does she have a soul? And if she doesn’t, then she’s not a person, and if she’s not a person then she has no free-will and no one has to treat her with any dignity. Does that make her a slave? It takes a conversation about a magical ship to see how easy it is to justify slavery simply by dehumanizing our fellow human beings. Part of Wintrow’s religion is also that things happen for a reason – so if you are a slave, you must have done something to deserve it. That’s pretty fucked up, but in the same vein makes it even easier for slave traders to justify what they are doing . . . which is also really fucked up.
The ending of Ship of Magic felt super rushed. Wintrow’s sister Malta gets involved in something that just might save the Vestrit family (but don’t even get me started on how annoying Malta is!), and a character I haven’t mentioned yet asks Vivacia a most important question.
There are things you like or dislike about any story, and then there are things you want to know more about any story. Hobb masterfully touches on all sorts of family secrets and histories and magics and politics, but never comes right out and says how any of it works. And with that, she’s got me hooked.
I want to know what Paragon did to his family and why he did it. I want to know how Vivacia’s life will change due to the question she is asked at the end of Ship of Magic. As annoying as she is, I want to know what happens to Malta. I want Wintrow to find some balance between his faith and a magic that doesn’t fit into it. Kyle is an asshole, so I’d like for something horrible to happen to him, or at least for his wife to realize how much of an asshole he is.
I want the answers to my questions. And the only way to get them is to read on!