I got myself hooked on Robin Hobb’s work with the Farseer trilogy, a series of books focusing on the land of the Six Duchies and one assassin attempting to navigate the violent landscape spread before him. The books had a strong focus on character development and world-building, with action generally quick or glossed over. Long paragraphs describing days, the way the world works, or inner thoughts were common, and character interaction came more from description than from dialogue.
I loved it.
Which is unusual, since many of those points are usually minuses rather than pluses for me. But Robin Hobb showed a great deal of care in crafting in her sentences and descriptions, making them flow so smoothly that I often wasn’t aware that the focus had shifted. Her world-building is phenomenal, to the point where the land of the Six Duchies felt like a living, breathing, and mysterious place. I was completely taken in by it, and eager for more.
While there are more books that deal with these established characters, Hobb released a different trilogy before those books focusing on a different area of the world she created in the Farseer trilogy. Chronologically, (at least, according to Wikipedia), these books come next, and since I have an obsession with doing things in order, I moved to this new series with a new set of characters.
And boy am I glad I did.
The Liveship Traders series, unlike the Farseer, does not focus on one character but instead a central cast, almost all of which come from one family, that of the Vestrits. The Vestrits are one of several Bingtown Trader families, meaning that they braved the foul conditions to settle on the shores of what has now been named Bingtown. They make their living off the land, trading goods with the neighboring nations. At the start of the book, the patron of the Vestrit family has just died, and it is time to send his ship off to one of his children.
But, of course, the ship is not as it seems.
In this world, there exists beings known as Liveships, ships that are alive. Without explaining too much, the ships are created from a special wood that absorbs the blood and memories of their captains. When three captains die and their memories fuse with the ship, the ship “quickens” or awakes. The figurehead at the front of the ship comes alive, talking and moving. When Patron Vestrit dies, his is the last death needed to quicken his ship. And so it seems that his ship will come alive and pass down to Althea, his middle daughter and one who spent much of her childhood aboard the ship in question. But, nothing goes as it seems, and instead the ship passes to her uncle, Kyle Haven. Kyle is ultimately ignorant of the ships and of Bingtown life, and threatens to drive his family to ruin. Althea’s quest to get her ship back drives the reader into the plot, but the story very quickly becomes so much more than that.
Explaining where the plot goes from there would be considered spoilers. :)
Each surviving member of the Vestrit family becomes entangled in this mess, both directly and indirectly, and it is through their eyes that we see the world. Their development over the series is a real highlight, and they change dramatically from where the book begins. Malta Vestrit, the youngest daughter, begins as an irritating little girl obsessed only with appearances and flirting with men. But she becomes a far different woman by the end, one of my favorite character transformations.
The Liveships, however, steal the show here. We see them through human eyes, but occasionally we see the world theirs as well. Hobb has a real skill depicting non-human beings, finding a sweet spot to making them feel alive and real, but also different. This skill was shown in the Farseer Trilogy with the bond between the assassin and his wolf, and is expounded upon here. The Liveships feel mostly human, but just a twinge of non-humanity seeps into them, barely a hint, but enough to seep through their character and remind us that they are not human the way I am. It’s subtle, and it’s brilliant.
I wish I could talk about them more, but once again, I would go into spoiler territory. Suffice to say, the liveship Paragon is one of my most favorite characters.
On a personal level, I am always fascinated by inanimate and non-living things given a kind of inner life. I was entranced as a child by the Love Bug movies, because the idea of a kind, playful automobile that came to life and played matchmaker (and raced) really appealed to me. I’ve found this in my own writing, where I’ve been known to create sentient machines. No, I don’t know why I find this fascinating, but I do.
Hobb’s writing, however, sometimes feels like it could use a sharper editor. While her descriptions and paragraphs always have a good flow, sometimes they repeat established ideas. Sentences occasionally run too long, and can feel clunky in odd places. It’s an overall rare occurrence, but does occur and is enough to make me, as a reader, double-take and see if I missed something.
Honestly, that’s my only real complaint though. So much of the work on display here is that of a master, and makes me eager to read more. These books are books to be taken slow, and enjoyed. There’s a richness to everything that I’ve not found often enough.