Backlist Reviews, Book Reviews, Fantasy

Backlist Review: Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb

A Backlist Review series for books that I loved but read previous to running this blog, applying only to anything that isn’t a new read for me. It’s the prefect excuse for a reread of old favourites!

Wizardwood, the most precious commodity in the world, comes only from the Rain Wilds. But only a liveship can negotiate the perilous waters of the Rain Wild River, and liveships are hard to come by. They quicken only when three family members from successive generations have died upon their deck.

The liveship Vivacia is about to undergo her quickening: Althea Vestrit waits for the ship that she loves more than anything in the world to awaken. But her dream of taking her father’s place at Vivacia’s helm is not to be, for her family have other plans… And the dark, charming pirate Kennit also lusts after such a ship: he well knows the power of wizardwood and has plans of his own…

Though this is the second series set in Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings, The Liveship Traders trilogy is where I first dipped into it, and it holds a special place in my heart. I have been considering a reread for a few years now, and the fact that our Wyrd & Wonder theme this year is ‘magic’ made me think it was the perfect time to pick up a story called Ship of Magic! It is set along the Cursed Shores, south of the Six Duchies for those who have read Assassin’s Apprentice, where a group of people from Jamaillia settled generations before, founding Bingtown and becoming renown traders. The key to their success was the creation of liveships, made from something called wizardwood which gives material objects a life of their own. The Bingtown traders use it only for ships, and once three generations of a family have died aboard one, the ship’s figurehead comes to life and holds the knowledge and memories of those previous generations. Because of this they are unrivalled in their sailing, and with their wizardwood hulls they are the only vessels that can travel up the Rain Wild river, where magic and exotic items can be found and traded.

Althea Vestrit has sailed her family liveship, the Vivacia, for many years under her father Ephron’s steady hand and though the ship has not quickened yet there is already a strong connection between the two. Because of Ephron’s sudden illness, Vivacia has been captained for the last year by his son-in-law Kyle Haven, a savvy man but one that does not understand the ways and traditions of the Traders and their liveships. Though Althea has struggled under his command, she holds out knowing that her father will soon put things to right. When they return to Bingtown, however, Ephron has just enough life left in him to get to Vivacia’s decks and die upon her and declare that he is leaving the ship to his eldest daughter Keffria, and thus command will stay with Kyle. Though the liveship is finally quickened, this act shatters the Vestrit family as Kyle immediately banishes Althea from sailing and drags his own son Wintrow aboard to be companion to the ship, who always needs someone of Vestrit blood aboard. Wintrow, however, had been training to be a priest, and chafes against his new role.

Althea and Wintrow are two of the three key characters in Ship of Magic; many others have points of view, but they are the ones in the midst of all the sea-based action. Althea is on a mission to prove her competency and regain her ship, while Wintrow is trapped on the Vivacia, bonded to her but unable to reconcile with the violence of his father and the demands of a sailor. The third key character is Kennit, a pirate captain with ambitions of becoming Pirate King. Part of his plan involves the capture of a liveship to enhance his fleet, though it is not something that has ever been done. Kennit is a difficult character, because though his ambitions and charisma drive his chapters forward and kept me hooked, he is not a good person. His surroundings and the different perspective he gives to the plot are what give him a greater importance in this first book, though there are hints of a dark past and in the latter half of the book he has a few other interesting characters surround him.

The map for Ship of Magic

We also get insight into Bingtown through the rest of Althea’s family: her sister Keffria, her mother Ronica, and her niece Malta. Keffria and Ronica are struggling to keep the finances afloat without giving up any more land or resources to the so-called New Traders, men from Jamaillia given new grants by their ruler the Satrap. This breaks the agreements made with the original settlers, and tensions are running high in Bingtown at all the changes and the threats to the Trader’s secrets and their kin in the Rain Wilds. Malta, on the other hand, is concerned only with entering society as a woman, and has no concern for her family’s struggles or the subtitles of shifting politics. She is my least favourite in this book, but as it’s a reread I know that she will have a bigger role to play later on – though I can’t remember whether she becomes less insufferable. Time will tell! What I did like were the glimpses we get at the Rain Wild Traders and their land which holds so much mystery! The way the Bingtown Traders closely guard their kin because of the way the Rain Wilds affects them physically is fascinating. I am so excited to dive into book two and see more of that!

This is a hefty book, with so many different character strands spread across the map, and a lot of complex politics and secrets, and it only grows as the series progresses. As such, it can be a bit intimidating to start with, especially as it opens with a very unusual point of view: a group of sea serpents starting their migration north. They are a fascinating element of the story, though their significance isn’t as obvious to begin with. I remember feeling intrigued but confused by them during my first read, but they allow Hobb to reveal bits of world-building her human characters could never know about, and they hint at greater mysteries. The biggest thing I remember from my first time with this series was that it did feel a bit long in places, and I got frustrated with it as often as it excited me. I must say that it benefits from a reread, because knowing the general direction of the story means I have been able to linger with each character with more patience, and have appreciated their interactions and inner development much more.

I have to say that this time around I have been utterly obsessed with this book. It’s been such a weird experience, especially since I do remember the rough story-beats, but maybe the fact that I concentrated more on the characters meant that they were on my mind constantly. At work I’d be itching for breaks to gulp down a few more pages, and if I woke up in the night I’d have to force myself not to get up and read until dawn. We shall see if the same holds up with the rest of the trilogy, especially because I don’t remember how it ends, but I do suspect I will be going on a full Robin Hobb binge this year, because I just want more and more of the world. And that, in my opinion, shows some very good storytelling skills!

Book Info

Published: 2nd March 1998 by Voyager (UK)
Genre: fantasy, nautical
Pages: 896 (my edition)
Series: The Liveship Traders, book one – part of the wider Realm of the Elderlings series
Narration style: third person past tense, multiple points of view
Format read: paperback
Content Warnings: violence, references to sexual violence, mutilation, slavery, violence by a parent, illness, loss of limbs, misogyny

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8 thoughts on “Backlist Review: Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb”

  1. I also read The Liveship Traders trilogy before the Farseer Trilogy. And I actually liked The Liveship Traders the most! I didn’t like Malta either at the beginning, but I really came to like her later in the story. Have you also read the Rain Wild Chronicles? It’s is on my TBR, but I’m not sure when I will get to it.


    1. Yes Malta by the end of the third book is one of my favourite characters! I’d forgotten that, but since writing this review I’ve recently finished the trilogy again! I haven’t read the Rain Wild Chronicles but I plan to soon… hopefully this year sometime!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah I get that! They do tend to be quite gripping, so once I started I didn’t feel the length much, but it definitely needs some motivation to pick them up!


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