The best way to explain this novel: imagine if a BBC production crew in the 1980s had set out to film a Victorian novel, but accidentally picked up an epic fantasy trilogy instead. The echo of Hardy, and the afterimage of The Jewel in the Crown, The Onedin Line, the Barchester Chronicles and a host of Merchant Ivory films hung in my brain as I plied my way through this novel.
On the one hand, yes, this is epic fantasy. The ‘Ship of Magic’ of the title is a Liveship (the series is known as ‘The Liveship Traders’) – a ship made of a magical wood that is able to move and talk once three generations of one family have died on its decks. The wood the wildships are made of, ‘wizardwood’, is obtained from the mysterious, mutated, inhabitants of the Rain Wilds, who purvey a host of other magical trinkets. Throughout the novel, meanwhile, sentient sea-monsters pursue ships while speaking amongst each other in portentious tones about their destiny. This isn’t traditional literary fiction.
On the other hand, it’s not precisely traditional fantasy either. To start with, the setting is not medieval, but early modern. The series is set in the same world as the Farseer Trilogy, but to the south of the Sixth Duchies, and the inhabitants of the Duchies (i.e. the protagonists of the earlier trilogy) are regarded as a backward tribe of barbarians. As in the Farseer Trilogy, the magic level, at least at first, remains low – there are talking ships, but nobody is throwing around fireballs.
More important, however, is the unusual focus of the action. There are two plot-worlds at the beginning of the novel. The bigger is the world of the Vestrit family. The Vestrits are an old family of Traders in the merchant-colony city of Bingtown, but both Bingtown and the Vestrits have fallen on hard times lately, and their debts are mounting up. The patriarch of the family, Ephron, begins the novel on his death-bed, his family seemingly not yet ready to take up the reins when he lets them fall. The only good news is that Ephron’s death, if it occurs aboard their liveship, will quicken it (his father and grandmother both died on its decks) into a sentient being, an inseperable member of the family – this is traditionally a cause for great celebration, and is assumed to herald some future prosperity (if nothing else, liveships sail faster and more surely than ordinary wooden ships).
Around the dying Ephron are his wife, Ronica – a wise woman who has always managed the Vestrit estates, but is only now coming to realise how much she has failed to pay attention to over the years – and his daughters, Keffria and Althea. His sons taken from him by plague, Ephron has nurtured and favoured his younger daughter, Althea, who sails with him, and believes herself to have the makings of a great captain, caring little about the damage her roving career and callused hands have done to her social standing and marriage prospects. Keffria, meanwhile, has fallen in love with and married the short-tempered, controlling, but pragmatic and reliable Kyle Haven (a man of foreign, Chalcedian, blood). Keffria and Kyle have three children – the eldest boy, Wintrow, has been sent away to a monastery to become a priest, against his father’s instincts, while his younger sister, Malta, waits at home desparate to become a woman (their youngest, Selden is largely overlooked by all). As the novel begins, Kyle Haven sails the Vivacia back to Bingtown, quarrelling with Althea, and Wintrow is summoned back to what may be his grandfather’s deathbed, and to the disapproval of a father unimpressed by robes and quiet ways. When Ephron dies, who will take control of the awoken Vivacia – and what will they do with her? Elements of their story are illuminated by Brashen, Ephron’s First Mate, a disillusioned runaway from another Trader family; in the background the political and economic situation is difficult, as the mother-empire, Jamaillia, attempts to reassert control in Bingtown by licensing an influx of new colonists ignorant of local ways and customs, and who in particular are keen to introduce slavery – illegal under Bingtown law, but permitted in Jamaillia and in neighbouring Chalced. Some Traders wish to resist the changes; others, like the Vestrit family friend, Davad Restart, a man destroyed by the death of his family, feel compelled to move with the times. Amber, a mysterious shopkeeper who makes wooden jewellery, is a very different sort of immigrant; and in the background, abandoned on a nearby beach, is the blind and deranged ship Paragon, known as Pariah, who is rumoured to have killed his crew – repeatedly.
The second, smaller world is the world of Kennit, a pirate with dreams of glory – one of the large and growing number of pirates who have established de facto control of the large, poorly-charted stretch of coast between Jamaillia and Bingtown. Kennit is succesful, but ruthlessly driven by ambition, and will not rest until he has been proclaimed the King of the Pirate Isles; as his fellow pirates are libertarian at best and downright feloniously anarchistic at worst, his dreams seem unlikely to be fulfilled – and perhaps even a throne will not be enough to satisfy him. Kennit himself is a man with almost no redeeming feature other than charisma, and he recognises this quite frankly to himself – and yet that charisma (and the occasional, enigmatic assistance of a magic charm) are enough to weave quite a different impression for those around him – most significantly his trusting first-mate, Sorcor, and his deeply damaged favourite prostitute, Etta.
Needless to say, these two independent plots will at some point come together, and the meeting is unlikely to be pleasant for anyone concerned. Also waiting for significance is the ground-drone of the sentient serpents, who cannot quite remember who or what they are, or what they are to do, but who are certain that something important is going to happen, and that they have a role to play in it.
Deep breath. I don’t normally take so long to talk about the plot – normally I can’t. I’ve only just, and briefly, outlined the starting positions of the major characters, and already I’ve written something longer than the detailed plot summaries I could draw up for many other novels. If you want a simple boy-finds-sword-boy-kills-dark-lord story that everyone can hum, this isn’t the series for you.
Instead, what it is is a deeply multisided family saga. On a casual count, I think there are 12 POVs in the first novel – and although some don’t get a lot of screentime (and four are non-human), that compares respectably with anything else on the market. A Game of Thrones, for instance, by my count has only 9 POVs (including the prologue). What’s more, Hobb’s viewpoint characters aren’t just viewpoints – they’re also characters. Whereas many of Martin’s POVs are (at least at first) broadly-brushed child-archetypes who primarily observe, secondarily react, and only then may now and then act from their own interests, almost all of Hobb’s POVs are fully-fleshed out individuals with their own distinctive, and almost inevitably conflicting, set of objectives and priorities. Much of what happens is not the result of some evil macchiavelli or dread alien power, but simply the result of the conflicting (and conflicted) efforts of individually reasonable men and women.
Characters, and in particular relationships, are the heart of the novel. Above all, this is a novel of family. The blood relations between Ephron, Ronica, Keffria, Althea, Malta, Wintrow and Selden; the marital relationship of Keffria and Kyle, and the legal relationship that Kyle bears toward his assorted female in-laws; the magical relationship between liveships and their families, which in many regards can be seen as a metaphor for blood bonds writ large; the more distant national relationships between the Bingtown Traders and their mysterious Rain Wild cousins, and between the Traders and their mother-empire, Jamaillia; and, of course, the absence of family relations seen in the bloodless, friendless pirates and whores. It is a novel about how children try to escape their parents, parents try to control their children, and those with neither parents nor children strive to gain the illusion of family, or to destroy the families of others.
It’s fortunate, then, that Hobb is a great crafter of characters. There is nobody here particularly unique, particularly vivid, except perhaps the villainous Kennit, but most of the characters have great vitality, and great believability. The idea of the tomboy daughter, here seen in the woman who believes herself a great sailor, is a familiar one in fantasy, but I’ve rarely if ever seen it done so believably, so sympathetically, as in Althea. The young priest-boy, wise beyond his years yet still naïve, who comes into conflict with a farmer who values physical labour and daring and leadership above books and peace-making and goodwill to all creatures, is hardly a new creation, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it done better than in Wintrow – a particular accomplishment, as the character needs to combine vulnerability with strength, and near-fanatical confidence with both humility and sometimes crippling doubt, and still be a believable child, and still clearly develop over time. This isn’t a showy characterisation that begs the audience ‘look at me, see how complicated I am, ooh, you thought I was like this and actually maybe I’m like that, ooh, I’m conflicted, aren’t I sexy?’. This is a quiet, background verisimilitude that may not draw the attention but makes every page matter a thousand times more greatly because these a real, and interesting, people we’re talking about. Perhaps a good way to say what I mean is to say that many books have star characters and supporting characters, and in a film adaptation, the star characters would have star actors and bring in the box office results, and the supporting characters would be played by ‘character actors’ who, if they put in a really good performance, might bring more to the character than can be read in the book. Well, Ship of Magic is a novel where often the greatest actor in the world could not bring more to some of these characters than is already present in the text – and all the characters need character actors. Perhaps that’s why those classic TV shows spring to mind. It’s not even just the main characters – as I was reading, I was thinking how I would adapt it for television, and came to the conclusion that several of the supporting cast could be given major actors and whole new storylines of background. It feels as though, if you scratch beneath the surface, you’ll simply find another layer of stories that Hobb could have chosen to tell, but didn’t.
What are these characters like? Well, in my opinion one of Hobb’s triumphs lies in making all her characters simultaneously likeable and dislikeable. Not, as in lesser works of characterisation, merely “likeable but reprehensible” or “dislikeable but admirable”, but actually both likeable and dislikeable. We like these characters in the same way that we like our friends – we recognise that they have faults, and when it is pointed out to us we may realise that these faults are gigantic, and we may fully understand when other people hate them or are contemptuous of them – and yet for us, these problems are still OK because it’s only our friend we’re talking about. Well yes, I suppose he is a colossal arsehole now you come to mention it, but you know you just have to get to know him… oh, well, yes, she is paranoid and vindictive, but aside from that (and you have to understand where she’s coming from, you know?) she’s a really great person. Most of Hobb’s characters are instantly sympathetic and likeable, but thinking about them dispassionately it’s hard to explain why.
In fact, if I had to sum up the plot of the novel based on the characters of the protagonists, in a single phrase, it would be “pride and prejudice”. Not the Austen novel, specifically, but that’s what it’s about. It’s an array of characters who could be nice, and who could get along with each other with no difficulty, but who aren’t, and don’t, because they’re proud and prejudiced. Whether it’s Kyle’s obsessive need to control (or ‘protect’) his wife and children, or Ronica’s fear of immigrants, or Brashen’s island-sized chip on his shoulder, or Althea’s sense of entitlement and indomitable self-righteousness, or Wintrow’s holier-than-thou conviction, or Kennit’s contempt for everybody in the world including himself, it’s a novel full of people looking down on, and keeping their distance from, others.
[Whilst on the ‘Pride and Prejudice’ line: what a rubbish title this novel has. ‘Ship of Magic’? I would be embarrassed buying it, and not in a ‘I know it looks geeky to you but I think it’s cool, but I’ll look embarrassed anyway because I’m not good at confrontation’ way. This title is both geeky and shit. It doesn’t sound good, and it doesn’t fire the imagination. Ship of Magic. So called because it involves a magical ship. Oh good. That’s inventive. Robin Hobb novels will never win awards for their titles (the only clever one is “Fool’s Errand”, and that’s too trite), but the Liveship novels have the worst, and ‘Ship of Magic’ surely takes the crown. Though come to think of it, “Ship of Destiny” has to give it a good run: less stating-the-obvious, more groan-inducing-cliché – I mean, what is this, a lost Enid Blyton series? Anyway, ‘Pride and Prejudice’ would have been a far better title, if somebody hadn’t already appropriated it.]
So, there is complexity of character, and, thanks to the conflicting motivations, complexity of plot – not only is it never entirely clear what’s going to happen (although, admittedly, as the first novel of a trilogy, it quickly becomes clear that certain general classes of things will happen, mostly along the lines of Things Will Go Wrong – otherwise there wouldn’t be a trilogy; hmm, come to think of it, another good name for this novel would be “There Will Be Blood” – what, somebody’s taken that one too?), but it’s never even clear what we as the readers ought to want to happen. Part of this is Hobb’s very mature attitude toward opportunity – that is, in essence, that it cannot be returned to once spurned. In many novels, particularly in fantasy, the protagonist fails to achieve something, or loses something and then spends the rest of the novel trying to get it back or right the wrong or redeem themselves. In Hobb, and particularly in the Liveship Traders, it’s just as much about accepting that you can’t get it back and moving on with your lives – almost inevitably, even if you do get back what you set out wanting, you’ll lose so much, or change so much on the way that you’ll end up wondering if it’s really been worth it, or whether this is really what you still want. When you fail a test, it’s no good getting better and trying to pass it next time – like as not, it’s simply too late. So, as the threads diverge from their starting point, because Hobb doesn’t allow us to believe in a simple reset button, ‘and they all lived happily ever after’ or ‘and then they apologised and discussed their feelings maturely and came to the compromise decision they should have made originally’, we can see the once-accessible happy ending fading further and further from sight, and it becomes increasingly unclear how the objectives of the different characters can all be accomodated.
Unfortunately, this dedication to complexity makes it rather too obvious when Hobb is cutting corners. She does this most notably in the characters of Kyle and Torg, and on the issue of slavery.
Slavery is bad – I think we can all agree. Hobb, backing out of a completely relativist narrative, tries to use this bedrock of badness in order to give a firm moral contour to her novel – while we may disagree over particular motivations and characters and assign responsibility differently, we can all agree that slavery is bad, and therefore that anything moving the world toward slavery is bad. Whose fault it is can be debated, but slave-trading is wrong.
Unfortunately, whether out of a lack of thought or from a need to make slavery absolutely and unarguably bad, this results in the issue of slavery being completely whitewashed (blackwashed? – that’s not a race joke, I just mean that the features are obscured under the layers of condemnation). In real societies, slavery does not exist simply because of Evil People – it serves many social functions, and convinces a goodly portion of society that it is better than the alternatives. In this book, slavery is shown as, on the one hand, absolutely reprehensible, and on the other hand almost inevitable. This is hard to swallow. The descriptions of the slave trade make it sound like the American-Carribean slavery system in its brutality – that is, like the most brutal slavery system known to mankind in its history – and yet most slaves appear to be citizens, not strange aliens with a different skin colour and religion. There is no clear reason given why slavery is so allegedly profitable – no clear parallel to Jamaican sugar, a crop so difficult and dangerous to manage correctly that free labour was clearly inferior. Certainly, the whole enterprise, the spreading extent of slavery, is explained by its profitability – and yet this seems strange, given that in most times and places in the world, laborious slavery is not profitable. Laborious slavery (by which I mean low-skilled work like mining and farming, rather than the high-skill high-value domestic service kind) is only normally profitable when there is an almost unlimited supply of slaves, which a society cannot produce from such limited methods as indenture, penal servitude, and natural population growth: societies with this form of slavery are all rapaciously expansive societies. This also explains their brutality – the slaves are aliens, invaders (albeit not of their own volition). Rome, for example, had even more widespread slavery than Jamaillia seems to have, but the slaves who worked down the mines and died on the farm were almost all Celts and Germans and Africans and other conquered barbarians. Domestically-produced slaves worked in the cities, and were treated far better – in part because it was harder to justify mistreating civilised people, and in part because they were simply too valuable to waste. Once the Empire stopped expanding, the slaves in the difficult jobs were quickly replaced with free labour: because without conquest to provide an endless stream of nearly-free human goods, most slavery is not profitable.
To cut the matter short: either slave-owning is profitable for Jamaillians or it is not. If it is profitable for them, why do they treat their slaves so appallingly? If one slave can make so much money, why are their owners so uninterested in keeping them alive, or even at employing them in the most efficient way? The question is particularly clear in the case of ‘mapfaces’, described as slaves who are sold frequently because they are troublesome – well why are they still alive? These traders are letting docile and maybe even skilled slaves die on ships and in prisons and be worked to death on farms… and yet when the slaves become troublesome and try to escape or refuse to obey orders, they’re kept alive and tattooed a little more? It makes no sense. More generally, the lack of attention paid to the well-being of slaves only makes sense if slaves are all very cheap: this requires, first, an immense pool of potential slaves (eg Africa for America, or conquest for the expanding Roman Empire), and, second, a great bar to prevent these cheap menial slaves from being trained into more valuable skilled slaves (i.e. racism in America, ‘barbarianism’ in Rome) – given that most of these slaves seem to be ordinary native-speaking citizens, many of them with their own skills and crafts, neither criterion appears to be met. Of course, slavery can be unprofitable – but then why is it spreading? Hobb puts no effort into caste systems or racism, no consideration of slaves as a form of prestige. Indeed, prestige slavery is often even more genteel than profit slavery – I’m reminded of some Indian slavery systems in which slaves were more pampered than masters, to show off the wealth that the master could waste. Even in America, by the time of the war, slaves were probably better-treated than equivalent free labourers in most of the South – and that was WITH racism! More generally, Hobb views slavery, explicitly, as a system in which people are viewed as commodities – which doesn’t really, or at least entirely, fit the reality of most slavery systems (in which concepts of family and land are usually very important as well).
So, the Big Bad of the novel doesn’t really seem to make sense to me: people have to do things that are obviously evil to people who look and sound exactly the same as them, and it seems impossible that it should be profitable to do so. It’s all just handwaved away, ‘it’s slavery, innit’, as though it were some primal evil, and not a complex econocultural phenomenon that actually requires reasons and has consequences (the world seems like a normal world, only with slavery bolted on the side, without much impact on anything else). You might not mind that. I admit I’m more interested in coherent worldbuilding than most, and I’m also unusual in thinking that slavery gets a bad rep [short version: a) it wasn’t as bad as people think it was, partly because people hear ‘slavery’ and think of the sugar plantations, as though people heard ‘capitalism’ and always thought of the brutal Amazon rubber plantations, or heard ‘democracy’ and always thought of the death of Socrates, or the Boer War concentration camps; and b) because it’s all very well to compare slaves to masters, but a more balanced assessment comes from comparing slaves to free labourers – and in many societies, while, sure, slavery was bad, poverty could be even worse. Poverty is a form of slavery not governed by laws or morals. So while I agree that the abolition of slavery has been a good thing on the whole, I think that in the precise situations of particular slavery systems, the instantaneous abolition of slavery would often not have improved people’s lot].
However, that problem breeds other problems. By making slavery so atrocious, and simultaneously so incomprehensible, Hobb forces those of her characters who support slavery, or allow it, to themselves be incomprehensible and/or atrocious. In this book there is no such thing as somebody who supports slavery for good reasons – all such people must be simply greedy or cowardly or malicious. The worst example of this is Torg – he’s a two-dimensional character in part, I think, because Hobb needs him to mistreat slaves (to show us how bad slavery is) while not allowing him any actual reason to mistreat slaves. So he’s just Evil. The same is largely true of Kyle Haven – in his case, the problem is not only his openness to the slave trade, but also his misogyny and need to control his family, which in the novel spring from, it’s implied, his Chalcedian background. Unfortunately, we don’t see any detail about Chalced, so we don’t know why all their men act like arseholes. It seems as though Chalced is simply evil, and everyone and everything influenced by Chalced is in some way evil as well. Now, to some degree we gradually get a sense of where Kyle is coming from, and we can respect that he’s a pragmatic man dedicated to the wellbeing of his family. But Hobb allows us no more than the slightest glimpse of this. The decision to, on the one hand, not give us any sustained exploration of Kyle’s background, or of the culture that he has been influenced by, and, on the other, to show us Kyle almost entirely through the eyes of his enemies, make him a thoroughly, and unnecessarily, unsympathetic character. Kyle could never have been the hero, but in making him so clearly and reprehensibly the villain I feel that Hobb is doing a disservice to her own story and characters.
The obvious and unambiguous and unexplained evil of everywhere that isn’t Bingtown also makes it hard to problematise the arrogance of the Vestrits. Pretty much the entire family (the whole of Bingtown really) is objectionably xenophobic, viewing all those who don’t exactly follow traditional Bingtown culture as inferior upstarts. This is not surprising, and enrichens the characters and dynamics of the family, and suggests some moral ambiguity when everybody protests about how needlessly hidebound and insular the Traders are. Unfortunately, it’s hard to keep hold of this interesting element in light of the fact that they are clearly correct: everybody else IS inferior. And, troublingly, that means that a big part of the message of the book is “immigrants are evil (unless they completely assimilate instantly, without question, and know their place)”. Not just dangerous (though they are – immigrants are the long-range threat throughout the novel) but actually evil. Now of course, there are interesting questions that can be raised in this area – sometimes societies do have to deal with troubling influxes of people of other cultures, and sometimes the host culture probably is superior in some moral respects. But by making it so unambiguous (the immigrants are all pro-slavery, and slavery is unambiguously bad and cannot be defended or explained, so there’s no question of compromise, or even of trying to understand their position), Hobb almost seems to deny the validity of these debates. Look, can’t you just see that all other cultures are inferior to us and must be wiped out? I don’t think this was the intention at all, but the broad bright colours of the slavery issue make it hard to see the finer distinctions and nuances being made.
So, that’s my problem. Don’t get me wrong – in terms of depth and complexity of character and conflict, this is still a good book. It’s just not as good as it could be.
It’s also flawed in its pacing. The pace is well-shaped (it rises and falls as it should, though it is a bit flat, more like Part One than Book One), but very, very, very slow. Particularly at the beginning, before the action starts, where there is chapter after chapter of people sitting down thinking to themselves. A hundred pages in and almost nothing had happened, but we’d been introduced to half a dozen different viewpoint characters, who had all had jolly good thinks about things. No surprise that last time I tried re-reading these I gave up after two chapters. It’s not easy to get into, and frankly it never becomes exhilerating.
That, of course, is partly a matter of taste and custom (another reason it feels old-fashioned). Once you get into it, once you get grabbed, and once you get accustomed to its style and manner, it’s pretty compelling. It would be nice, however, if it were easier to get to that point quicker.
I must, though, make one thing clear: although this is a very talky, thinky book about relationships, that doesn’t mean there are no exciting bits. There is a small handful of action scenes, and although these are sparsely scattered, they are extremely good. In fact, I would happily put Hobb’s action scenes alongside the best the genre has to offer. They just aren’t all that common.
Finally, a trivial point but worth mentioning: don’t read if you’ve got a queasy stomach. I’ve said before that I find Hobb’s maturity impressive – the way she can go to some dark places in a very matter-of-fact way, not feeling gratuitous or sensationalist – and in this novel this is best seen in the repeated ‘amateur surgery’ scenes. Sometimes people have to have things amputated or things sewn up, and Hobb isn’t embarassed to talk about it quite straightforwardly, to quite an ‘urgh’y extent. The graphic surgery and the exciting action scenes were the two things that surprised me on the re-read.
Adrenaline: 3/5. Could be higher, but the pace is generally slow, and the beginning in particular takes a long time to get going.
Emotion: 3/5. I cared about the characters and worried about them, but this is only the first book of the trilogy, so I don’t expect to be put through the wringer yet.
Thought: 3/5. Not particularly taxing – the plots are not simple, but not convoluted either, and there’s enough thinking around to keep the mind active without really getting philosophical at any point.
Beauty: 3/5. *shrug* Some beautiful scenes, I suppose. Prose is uninspiring but solid – a bit rough in places, particularly near the beginning, but nothing too off-putting.
Craft: 4/5. Prose not perfect, but gets the job done. Pacing and content issues are largely inevitable (that is, the slow pace feels like an intentional decision, part of what these books are, rather than an avoidable mistake). Maybe could have had a more exciting beginning. Characters complex and well-depicted, plots well-handled, generally well-written, though not perfect in every respect. Didn’t blow me away with artistry.
Endearingness: 4/5. I’m strongly attached to the characters, and found reading very enjoyable in an old-fashioned way. But not enough happens for me to love it.
Originality: 3/5. Individual character-arcs are all familiar, but well-handled, and they fit together into an interesting and unusual work, at least by the standards of the genre.
Overall: 5/7. GOOD. This is a good book. It’s well-written, it’s enjoyable to read. It’s solid. Its biggest problem is that it’s too solid. It doesn’t make too many mistakes, but it doesn’t exactly come out swinging either. That said, it’s only the first book of a trilogy, so there’s plenty of time for the big guns to be wheeled out.