Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb

After finishing Robin Hobb’s wonderful Farseer trilogy in November 2014 I knew I wanted to read more of her books. I was desperate to find out what would happen next to the Farseer characters so it was tempting to go straight to her Tawny Man trilogy, but after looking at some recommended reading orders, I decided it would be better to read her other series, The Liveship Traders, first. If none of this means anything to you because you’re unfamiliar with Robin Hobb, rest assured that reading Ship of Magic does not require any knowledge of previous Hobb novels and I’ve avoided spoiling them in the rest of this post!

Ship of Magic is set in the same world as the Farseer books, but the action this time centres around Bingtown, a coastal community of traders and merchants governed by the highly respected Bingtown Trader families, descendants of the original settlers of those shores who came from the mysterious Rain Wilds. The Bingtown Traders have maintained their connections with those who remained in the Rain Wilds and as part of this alliance the Rain Wild Traders provide the Bingtown Traders with the means to build a liveship – a debt so large that it can take generations to be paid off. Why is a liveship so important? Well, it is built from wizardwood – a magical wood with a mind of its own – and is the only type of vessel which can travel safely up the hazardous Rain Wild River to trade in the magnificent, enchanted goods that are available there.

At the beginning of the novel, the Vestrit family’s liveship, the Vivacia, is about to ‘quicken’ – the term given to the process by which a wizardwood ship comes to life after three generations of the family have died on board. Althea Vestrit is devastated by her father’s death, but excited at the thought of taking over the captaincy of the ship. After all, she has spent her childhood accompanying her father on his voyages and, as a blood-member of the family, she is the one who could be expected to share a close bond with the newly quickened Vivacia. She is bitterly disappointed, then, when it emerges that her father has actually left the ship to Kyle Haven, her elder sister’s husband, a man who has no understanding of what is involved in commanding a liveship. Furious and heartbroken, Althea decides to leave home and go out into the world where she can prove herself as a sailor and one day regain control of the Vivacia.

The edition of Ship of Magic I read is over 800 pages long, so you won’t be surprised to hear that there is a lot more to the plot than I have talked about so far. I don’t want to go into too much detail here, but I would like to briefly mention some of the other storylines and characters. First there’s Wintrow, Kyle’s son, who is taken from the monastery where he was studying to be a priest and not at all happy about being forced to serve with his father on board the Vivacia. Then there’s Wintrow’s sister Malta, left at home with her mother and grandmother. Malta longs for excitement in her life – to be allowed to go to balls, to wear grown-up dresses and be courted by young men – and she can’t understand why her family are so determined to stop her. Finally, there’s Kennit, a pirate captain who dreams of becoming a pirate king and is sailing up and down the coast waiting for the chance to capture a liveship of his own.

I really enjoyed this book; although I certainly hadn’t intended to wait three years before reading it, I’m glad I didn’t pick it up immediately after finishing the last Farseer book when I would undoubtedly have just wanted more of the same story. There were times when I felt there was a little bit too much going on in this novel and too many characters to get to know – but for the most part, I thought they were worth knowing! The only characters I actively disliked were Kyle, Malta and one of Kyle’s crew members, Torg. The rest were interesting, nuanced and well written. I was particularly intrigued by Kennit, who in many ways is one of the villains of the book, but who does seem to have a conscience in the form of a wizardwood charm worn on his wrist. I’m also hoping to learn more about the wood-carver Amber and the abandoned liveship Paragon in the next book.

The title of that next novel is The Mad Ship and I have included it on my 20 Books of Summer list, so expect to hear all about it soon!

13 thoughts on “Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb

    • Helen says:

      Assassin’s Apprentice is great! I hope you enjoy it when you get round to reading it – and then you’ll have the rest of the trilogy to look forward to. 🙂

  1. Judy Krueger says:

    I have been feeling the need for some fantasy lately. I haven’t read any for a good while. I just put Assassin’s Apprentice on hold at the library. One of my highly respected Goodreads friends gave it 5 stars and a glowing report and then of course, there is you! Thanks.

    • Helen says:

      Assassin’s Apprentice isn’t the sort of book I would usually choose to read, but I gave it a chance and found that I loved it. I hope you do too. The whole trilogy is great. 🙂

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    To those wondering if they should read Assassin’s Apprentice, DO IT. It’s a wonderful book either for young adults or for grown-ups and Hobb’s writing style is wonderful. I don’t give 5 stars easily, but this is one of the few that deserved them.

    And Helen, congrats on breaking into the Liveship series! I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it, and also glad that you disliked Malta as much as I did. She’s such an irritating character. Kennit, however, is fascinating, I agree, as is Amber. I’m looking forward to seeing what you make of Amber as time goes on. And, now that I’m on the final book of the final trilogy, I emphasise once again that it really is necessary to read the Liveship Trilogy (and the Rain Wilds series) in order to understand how Hobb’s world develops. I hope you continue to enjoy the books!

    • Helen says:

      Based on this first book, I don’t think I’m going to love this series as much as the Farseer trilogy, but I did still enjoy it. It was tempting to go straight to the Tawny Man series to catch up with Fitz again, but I wanted to read through Robin Hobb’s books in what, as far as I could tell, seemed to be the correct order. I’m glad you’ve confirmed that – and I’ll be sure not to skip the Rain Wilds series either. For now, though, I’m looking forward to starting The Mad Ship!

  3. buriedinprint says:

    It feels like I’ve been hearing good things even more than usual about her writing lately: must be time to start collecting!

    • Helen says:

      Robin Hobb’s books are great! You could probably start with this series if you wanted to, but I would recommend starting with Assassin’s Apprentice.

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