Backlist Reviews, Book Reviews, Fantasy

Backlist Review: The Mad Ship 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!

The Vestrit family’s liveship, Vivacia, has been taken by the pirate king, Kennit. Held captive on board, Wintrow Vestrit finds himself competing with Kennit for Vivacia’s love as the ship slowly acquires her own bloodlust. Leagues away, Althea Vestrit has found a new home aboard the liveship Ophelia, but she lives only to reclaim the Vivacia and with her friend, Brashen, she plans a dangerous rescue. Meanwhile in Bingtown, the fading fortunes of the Vestrit family lead Malta deeper into the magical secrets of the Rain Wild Traders. And just outside Bingtown, Amber dreams of relaunching Paragon, the mad liveship…

Spoiler warning for book one.

People often refer to middle-book syndrome when it comes to the second instalment in a trilogy, but I don’t think The Mad Ship suffers too much from this problem. It stands well on its own, but sets up the stakes and tension for the conclusion. One of the most impactful elements of this book is the slowly spreading realisation that liveships are made from the cocoons of dead dragons, hidden away long ago during an earth-shattering natural disaster that buried the Elderlings’ cities. Though there have been hints of this before, it’s stated outright when we get the first glimpse of the Rain Wilds from Reyn’s point of view. I loved the focus on world building that this second book has, because the magic and mystery adds to the wonder of it all and balances well with the grittiness and harshness of what most characters experience.

The Mad Ship truly spares none of its characters; upheaval is everywhere, war threatens, and no one is safe from suffering. If Hobb hadn’t had the mystery of the last buried dragon it would have been too depressing to read, and in fact that’s why I couldn’t get through Royal Assassin in the Farseer Trilogy. Maybe the fact that the suffering is spread out between more people and doesn’t all happen simultaneously is a bit more manageable than having a single character endure it all as Fitz does in his own story… there is a lot of hope too, though. Wintrow, for example, starts the book as Kennit’s captive aboard the Vivacia but he grows more under the pirate’s care than he did under his abusive father, and he gets to witness Kennit’s plans to develop the Pirate Isles into something more respectable than a den of self-serving exiles.

Brashen and Althea also begin their own transformations, developing confidence in themselves and slowly finding a future within one another. I remember on my first read thinking that their romance was a little forced, but having paid attention to all the little moments from the very start of Ship of Magic this time around, it makes sense and melts my heart, misunderstandings and all. And then there is the more pronounced presence of Amber, the mysterious bead-maker who always seems to be at the centre of all important events. She is by far my favourite character, and though this series isn’t one of good vs evil, she is always squarely at the forefront of trying to bring good into the world, and bring the best out in people, and that is a joy to read. It’s partly because she’s there that Bingtown becomes a more interesting setting than it was in the first book.

 ‘That’s how it’s done, Trell. You break your heart against this stony world. You fling yourself at it, on the side of good, and you do not ask the cost. That’s how you do it.’ 

The other thing that makes Bingtown more interesting is the rising tension between Old Traders and New Traders as the Satrap of Jamaillia commissions the warring nation of the Chalcedeans to “patrol” for pirates and enforce tolls, choking Bingtown’s trade with other countries and bringing potential enemies into their waters. At the same time, the Satrap himself is on his way to Bingtown, and we get to see things unfold on that end of the power spectrum from the point of view of his Companion Serillia. She has her own reasons for wanting to get to Bingtown, but things quickly spiral out of control for them as well.

As I said earlier, this book set things up well for the concluding novel, with most plot elements up in the air by the end, but the journey it takes to do so it engaging and kept me reading. There was also a lot of character development, and certain people I had disliked in book one became more fleshed out and enjoyable to read in book two. The pirate Kennit probably shines the most in this middle book, where he is at the pinnacle of his success, and so all the events surrounding the Vivacia were interesting, and the characters surrounding him also added to this. There are a few things throughout the book that felt a bit unnecessary to the plot, but because they fed into character development they did not clash too much, and they all led to the events of the conclusion.

Book Info

Published: 19th November 1998 by Voyager (UK)
Genre: fantasy, nautical
Pages: 906 (my edition)
Series: The Liveship Traders, book two – 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, rape, slavery, illness, loss of limbs, misogyny

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