The Mad Ship, by Robin Hobb

Short version of my reaction as I went through this novel: “YEAH!…ok!… ok?…. er?… [twiddles thumbs]… oh, yeah!”. Or to put it more comprehensibly: the second novel of the Liveship Traders takes off where the first ended, and seems to be getting even better, before suffering something of a mid-novel hiatus and being revitalised at the end with a rousing finale.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the middle portion exactly – it’s just that, as not uncommonly with Hobb – the author seems to take her foot off the accelerator and lets it all coast along a bit too sedately.  The underlying problem is that her style, particularly in this trilogy, is a slow one, with a lot of introspection by characters and a lot of reporting and reflection and reconsidering of things that have happened off-screen. When the plot is strong enough to drag the reader through this heavy meal, or when it is sweetened by high-octane scenes (at which Hobb is surprisingly talented, given that they don’t seem to be what she’s interested in), the result is a satisfying feeling of fullness. When the plot slackens and slows and we go too many chapters without a seamonster or a kidnapping or an assault, the result is that we’re left picking through a perfectly-pleasant-and-nutritious grey porridge of events in the hope that something exciting will happen eventually. When it does happen, it’ll be twice as good because of all the set-up (and I don’t mean bland exposition – every chapter is a good story in its own right and things are always happening – they’re just not thrilling in their own right), but while we’re going through the set-up it’s a little slow. It’s important to stress that this slowness isn’t Jordanesque ten-pages-describing-a-dress filler; it’s all important character development and plot development – but it sometimes feels like a lot of healthy food without much sugar.

That means that this book isn’t brilliant and I don’t adore it. I do, however, really, really like it.

Ship of Magic was a character-driven complicated story, as various tangentially-connected individuals tried to go about their lives and ran into complications. The Mad Ship is still heavy on character, but now the events of the first book have taken on a life of their own, and the wheels of plot have pulled out of the hands of the characters. This lends procedings a rather desparate air – things are getting worse and worse and less and less controllable. That doesn’t mean we don’t get to see a lot of in-depth character work, though. On the contrary. If you like you fantasy to focus on character, come read this book. Towering above it is the incredible character of the pirate king, Kennit, who goes from being intriguing to being one of the greatest creations of the fantasy genre. I’ve recently been watching HBO’s wonderful In Treatment (the second season), and at times that’s how The Mad Ship feels – a slow, elliptical exposure of the surprising and paradoxical layers of Kennit’s psychology. Unfortunately, Kennit’s power, both as a work of art and as a person within the novel, rather overshadow some of the characters near him (no spoilers!), including particularly one of my favourites from the first novel. My other favourite becomes increasingly less likeable, as their experiences leave them more experienced, and more calloused – personally I preferred the naïve and endangered version. Meanwhile, though, other characters rise to the fore. Etta, for instance, gets more screentime; a new character, Serilla, is introduced (and promptly spends almost the entire novel travelling at a pace of about an inch per page), and with her a new mode of femininity. Indeed, much of this trilogy feels like an exercise in discussing different ways of being female – although there are male characters, and important ones, they seem almost independent of one another, while the women are more closely linked thematically. In part, this is because the main male character, Kennit, is (at least apparently) the only truly freely-acting person in the trilogy, while the female characters (and Wintrow, who in the first book was frequently likened to a woman in his behaviour and psychology) are forced to react to hardships. How they deal with those hardships defines them – the trilogy is perhaps (leaving Kennit aside) a study in how women can come to terms with, and attempt to transcend, positions of powerlessness: Althea, Keffria, Malta, Ronica, Etta, and now Serilla all attempt to do this in different ways. Nor, I think, is it a coincidence that the two immensely important characters introduced near the end of the novel are both female. This is not to say that it’s a feminist novel, or that the lessons of the women are not meant equally to be heeded by men (after all, in today’s society the division between powerful men and powerless women is rather less clear and unambiguous than in the trilogy’s setting – and by the end of this novel it’s starting to seem as though it’s going to be subverted even within the trilogy). But as a man, I have to say with an earnest explosion of relieved sighing: by heavens, it’s good to finally have a fantasy novel about women. I love feisty tomboys with swords, and I can accept both narratively and historically the need for mothers and swooning love interests ‘back home’, but it’s good to finally get a work where women are at the centre – and such varied women that you’d have to try hard not to like at least one of them.

Malta, I might add, is fantastic in this novel. The first time I read it, I thought that what Hobb did with Malta was genius on the level of what she did with Kennit. The second time, watchful and not taken by surprise, I found I could see through the gaps, as it were, a little better – but it’s still true that she’s a fantastic piece of work that should act as a lesson for everyone out there wanting to learn about character development. And even about character per se. The obvious comparison is Martin’s Sansa, but Malta is both more realistic and more infuriating than Sansa – and her character development is more impressive and more believable.

Going back a moment: if you want to know who this paragon (no pun intended) of characterisation, this “Kennit” is, I can summarise him, broadly, roughly, approximately, like this: he’s Deadwood’s Al Swearengen, mixed with Battlestar Galactica’s Gaius Baltar. And we see inside his head. Yes, that is as awsome as it sounds. In fact, when reading the first novel, encountering this little trinity of Kennit, Sorcor and Etta, I found it hard not to believe that David Milch must have read it, and that this was the basis of Deadwood’s Al, Dan and Trixie. Hobb’s versions, though, are better. And to Baltar I owe a curious semi-revelation halfway through the novel: remembering Baltar’s prison scene, in which he talks about his father and reverts to his native,  peasant accent, I experimented with giving Kennit (like many real-life pirates) an uneducated West Country drawl, rather than the supercillious RP that I first imagined. I’m not convinced it’s the best interpretation, but it certainly helps cast him in a new light. And no, I’ve still not come to terms with the fact that he has a moustache with pointy ends – I’m sure that fits in somewhere, but I don’t yet understand quite where.

However, despite what I’ve said above, this isn’t just a character-driven low-magic fantasy saga. Oh no. In Ship of Magic, it began to become apparent that Weird Things were going on beneath the surface. Well, in The Mad Ship those weird things smash their way to the surface – the all-important words start being bandied around in the very first few chapters, and by the end it’s clear that world-shattering events are unfolding.

That additional dimension adds a sparkling finish to the saga, because the fantastical dimension of Hobb’s world-building is extremely impressive: doubly so for the way that the revelations of this novel merge with, reframe and underpin the revelations of the earlier Farseer Trilogy, while at the same time standing alone in their own right for those who have not read those books. This, in a way, captures the essence of Hobb’s approach: to give the –sometimes confusing – impression of a world far larger than the one we see, and in the process to allow each individual thing to stand independently. I suppose what I mean is that, for instance, if a reader of this trilogy were told that there was another trilogy set before this one in time, there would be three or four possible times and places where one might imagine that that earlier trilogy was set. As it happens, Farseer is set in the Six Duchies and neighbouring areas a few years before the events of The Liveship Traders, and its events cast one light on the events of this trilogy – but if it had been about something else (Kelsingra, perhaps, or the Others, or Jamaillia, or the founding of Bingtown, or Chalced, or the lands to the south) I get the feeling that it could have cast a different light on things. Hobb’s world feels big and complicated and shrouded in mystery – a puzzle that all fits together somehow, but half the pieces are lost, and we don’t know which pieces will be found again and which are lost forever. There are a dozen clever references to Farseer, but there are just as many things that could equally well be references to other books – which happen not to have been written.

More prosaically: the creatures Hobb starts to describe in this book, and their lifecycle, are as imaginative (and yet weirdly believable) as anything you’ll find in epic fantasy.

I have to try to talk about problems, though. Well, as I’ve suggested, although there’s always something happening, a lot of it isn’t important or exciting in its own right, only in terms of what will happen next, and that makes the book slow (not a problem, only a taste) and uneven (perhaps a problem). The prose remains… uninspiring, though in no way bad by the standards of the genre. The more practical, sociopolitical side of the worldbuilding sometimes feels a little cardboardy (although political developments in Bingtown are well-handled). AND I WANT A PROPER MAP, DAMNIT. That was more of a problem for the first book, where I kept looking on the map to find places, only to realise that hardly anywhere is actually marked on the map at all, but it continues to be a frustration in this installment. If you’re going to provide a map, could you please mark places on it that are mentioned in the text? You know, just some of them, maybe?

Adrenaline: 3/5. Sounds high given what I’ve said, but there are exciting and gripping bits here – just sometimes spread too far apart.

Emotion: 3/5. I suppose one complaint is that this volume didn’t really kick on, emotionally, from the first. In part, I wonder if that’s because of the multiple-POV system: with so many characters developing simultaneously, it’s maybe harder to get fully caught up in the feelings of any one of them, because ten pages later we’ll be wrenched out and put in an entirely different head.

Thought: 3/5. As with the first volume, this isn’t thinky-fantasy, but it’s not stupid fantasy either. The underlying magical-biological mystery intrigues but does not perplex; the moral dilemmas are interesting.

Beauty: 3/5.*shrug*

Craft: 4/5. Almost 5/5, but I suppose the pacing could be a little better, and the prose needs to sparkle more as well. Mostly, though, extremely sophisticated. Handles a wide range of characters in an impressive way, including both development and revelations.

Endearingness: 4/5. Almost loved it, but not quite. Perhaps a bit too cold and ponderous to really be adorable. Plus, my favourite chapter in the series isn’t in this book (probably Athel on the sealer).

Originality: 4/5. Pushed up by the weird life-cycle, and generally distinctive world-building, and things like showing the political dimension through the eyes of an annoying brat.

Overall: 5/7. GOOD. Pretty similar to the first book in the trilogy, maybe a little better. Continues to be well-written and enjoyable, and suprisingly sophisticated for the genre; critics may wish it was a bit more full-blooded.

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One thought on “The Mad Ship, by Robin Hobb

  1. […] LIVESHIP TRADERS: Ship of Magic The Mad Ship Ship of […]

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