Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb is now my go-to book for critics who think that fantasy can’t be as well written as literature.
5/5 21/25 Possible Score
Plot – 4(Strong)
Characters – 5(Very Strong)
Setting/World Building – 3(Fine)
Writing Style – 5(Very Strong)
Heart & Mind Aspect – 4(Strong)
Ship of Magic deals with the lives of people that live on a coast and are ship traders. The Vestrits are an old family of traders that own a liveship, a ship that is sentient. The father of the Vestrits is on his death bed and must die aboard the liveship, Vivacia, to allow the ship to come alive completely. Althea is a late teenage girl that has been on Vivacia for many years, sailing with her father. Just recently, because of Althea’s father’s illness, the captain position was given to Kyle, Althea’s step-brother. Kyle, a non-blood Vestrit, believes it is his duty to get the Vestrit family out of debt any way he possibly can. After the father dies, Kyle takes control of the family, and orders Althea off the ship, replacing her with his son, Wintrow. Wintrow is training to be a priest and he does not want to be a sailor, but Kyle makes him quit the priesthood and join the Vivacia. Althea, now without her ship must find a way to take back the Vivacia from Kyle.
Kennit is a pirate that has a lot of luck on his side. His goal is to become the pirate king of the Pirate Isles. To solidify his position as the pirate king, he wishes to commandeer a liveship, a feat thought impossible.
Ship of Magic is a heavily character centered family drama, story about an ambitious pirate, mystical outsiders, and menacing water-serpents.
Ship of Magic is one of those special fantasy novels. Robin Hobb’s writing style is in full display of brilliance in this novel. It reminds me of family dramas from the likes of Dostoevsky and Franzen. Unlike The Farseer Trilogy, this trilogy is written in limited third person view point. The writing style is very classic in approach, long dialogues, long descriptions, and detailed accounts of scenes. A scene of dialogue between the Vestrit family members can take an entire chapter in length, about 20-25 pages for a mostly dialogue scene to develop. This writing style might not be for everyone but I find the detailed discussions and character view points to be completely engrossing.
Robin Hobb is one of the best character writers in fantasy and book one of The Liveship Trader series shows how great she is. Every single character is flushed out completely, including the liveships. We know intimately Hobb’s characters and all of their flaws. Some characters are easy to hate, but their reasoning might be completely legitimate. Like real people, these are messy individuals, that make a lot of bad choices, and react badly to circumstances. What is the most remarkable part of these characters is that every single point of view character’s story is engaging. There is not one character that I liked reading about more than any other.
Another thing that struck me while reading Ship of Magic is the overall theme of the ramifications of your choices. Each character makes seemingly insignificant choices that impacts their life drastically. One bad reaction to a discussion or one word spoken out of character, and it changes their entire story. I found this incredibly realistic to real life. I’ve learned in my life that it is my reactions to circumstances and not really the circumstances themselves that change my life tremendously, and Ship of Magic brings this aspect of life out perfectly.
The world building is relatively slow but there are many mysteries that are making me excited about picking up the future books. The ship and sailing sections of the book are well researched and interesting. The plot is solid but I hope that more variables are added into the story to allow more randomness. I felt that this first book was rather safe as far as plotting went, and I was really looking for a change or a twist during the story, so most of the plot is rather predictable. Also, I found that Hobb didn’t explain distance between the ports and how much time had elapsed that great.
I highly recommend Ship of Magic for readers that want a very detailed character driven book. This isn’t the type of book with wizards throwing around fireballs and crazy antics by thieves to steal a powerful amulet of power. It isn’t an exciting fantasy book with a lot of action and that might bore some readers. This is a family drama set in a fantastical world with an extremely detailed writing style that just worked for me.