Ship of Destiny, by Robin Hobb (Liveship Traders #3).

I’m not really sure what to say about Ship of Destiny. It suffers from all the pacing issues of the earlier installments – indeed, I more or less abandoned it for a while halfway through, although that was as much about me getting distracted as it was about any objective quality of the book. That said, this isn’t perhaps the best series to read without a break, since the slow pace and rich plotting could probably becoming cloying for many readers.

And yet I can’t really complain about the pacing, because when I did, reluctantly, pick the book back up, halfway through, I fairly raced through to the end. This is a book with a big, impressive climax – a climax the series deserves – with an impressive, and intimidating, sense of destiny approaching, as the past, both ancient and modern, slowly gathers over the characters, ready to pounce, and the different strands of plot all converge for a final reckoning.

In some ways, it’s too big a climax, because the plot threads that don’t get wrapped up in it all have to be pushed to one side and conveniently forgotten about, which feels a bit of a cheat. It’s also a very big bomb to drop near the end of the book, making the subsequent authorial scurrying to tie up loose ends just a bit too obvious. It’s not as ungainly a clean-up as at the end of Farseer, but it’s still… not quite right. The end is maybe 20 or 30 pages too long – I don’t know which bits should have been cut, but something should have been. And there are maybe just one or two too many loose ends wrapped up, one or two too many questions answered – again, I don’t know which ones precisely should have been left dangling (and some were, to be fair), but as it was it went past satisfying, into clever and significant, and then just slightly too far into artificial and… over-neat. Likewise, throughout the book, there were too many dramatic misunderstandings – all by themselves believable, and any one of them a good source of tension, but all stuck in together seeming just a little bit too formulaic.

This isn’t an important thing, but: the issue of slavery is largely abandoned, which I felt cheated by. And at some point that got me thinking: this is a trilogy that explicitly addresses the evils of slavery, and features explicit condemnations of those who see slaves (and by extension all underclasses) as homogenous – and this is also a trilogy that shows us the same events from multiple perspectives, to show us the complixity of things, and how the same things appear differently to different people. OK, so how come there are no POVs of slaves? How come there are no developed slave characters? How come there are only a handful of slaves even named in all three books put together? It’s always “the slaves”, or “the Tattooed”, an almost indivisible mass. If she hadn’t brought our attention to it it might not have been noticeable – no book can give us every perspective, after all – but with so much emphasis placed on the topic, I ended up feeling that this was a massive hole in the series. Couldn’t Hobb have found an interesting slave narrative to tell? Given that there are slaves in the background of almost every plot in the trilogy, I’m sure she could have done. There are other gaps, too – the latent xenophobia of the Old Trader characters would have been well served by some New Trader POVs, for instance, or at the very least some sympathetic New Trader (or Jamaillian, or above all perhaps Chalcedian) characters. It feels a bit one-sided – which is fine for most books, but not for a book that seems to put a lot of its credibility on its (ideological and narrative) pluralism and three-dimensionality.

Another area sorely lacking was a real consideration of the end-point of the series. Although the trilogy, as is traditional, ends on, broadly, a ‘happy ending’, it’s an ending that is both bittersweet and ambiguous, on several levels. That’s great – but I really could have done with this being brought out more in the text itself – particularly as regards the top-level ‘geopolitical’, for want of a better word, resolution, which it’s too easy to read as a positive development. The reluctance of several reliable characters, and the self-doubt of another, do provoke the attentive reader to think more thoroughly about whether this happy ending is really happy or not – but in light of just how dramatic the events are, I really felt that more explicit thought on the subject was needed. Best of all would have been some tie-in between the different levels of theme – how does the ‘serpent’ plot look when placed in the same light as the ruminations on slavery, for instance?

[I’m sorry for speaking in code. I want to make some points that will only completely make sense to people who have read the books, you see, while not including explicit spoilers for those who have not read them. Not sure I’m always succesful at making sense when I do that]

Finally, a massive problem I had with the trilogy as a whole and this book in particular is the way in which several – and by the end frankly most – characters were sidelined after I’d become interested in them. This occurred not only in terms of screen-time, but also in character-development. Relationships between the reader and the characters that at one time seemed intimate and textured gradually become flat and distant. To some degree this is inevitable, in order to make room both for the plot and for the growth of several characters – most dramatically the growth of Kennit from an interesting side-character not directly involved with the main plot into the central, paramount, foundational character of the trilogy – but I feel it could have been handled with a little more sensitivity. My favourite chapter of the entire trilogy was way back in the first book, and it’s a great disappointment that the connexion I felt then was never rekindled.

However, there are good things about the book. First, it’s commendably explosive – it may have a long fuse, and there may be issues with aftershocks, but the big bang itself is a thrilling read. As I’ve said before, I’m constantly amazed by how good Hobb is at writing action scenes, given how far they are from what I’d consider her core interests.

If there is a core interest, it’s character and relationships, and here also the book excells. Many of the characters are rich, believable, and subject to change and development – believable change and development, or in some cases a refreshingly realistic lack thereof. This novel, however, is Kennit’s. In Kennit we are given one of the masterpiece characters of the fantasy genre – a character complex, ambiguous, repellant and attractive, a character even that raises interesting questions. We never know who Kennit is, or who he isn’t, not because he’s hidden from us, or devoid of characterisation, but because we are given at least two completely conflicting interpretations: is he a villain to the core, who succesfully persuades those around him that he is a man of many great virtues, or is he a good man who does good things despite telling himself (from fear and from shame) that he is a villain? Is he both? Or is he neither? The truth of masks and the deception of sincerity… even when we see the events from every perspective possible, still we cannot penetrate to “the truth” of the matter when it comes to the nature of men’s souls. And to some degree perhaps it doesn’t matter that we can’t. Throughout the trilogy, characters engage in various serious and meaningful relationships without ever really knowing the other parties – and though character drives the plot, it is a negotiated, external character, that may be quite disconnected from the heart of the man, or the woman. Most of all, we may never really know Kennit – if indeed there is any meaning to that concept or real knowledge of a person – but it doesn’t matter, because it is “Kennit”, the larger-than-life negotiated social construction that drives events. The man at the core of the myth is perhaps as confused about the boundaries between himself and his legend as we are. But of course, though Kennit exemplifies this most strongly, it remains true for all the other characters – whether the myth is a romantic ideal, or a paternal prescription, or a heroic duty, or the mask of authority. The image and the real – and the ineffability of the real, its negotiable quality – is a theme that runs powerfully through the whole trilogy.

In the process, we are distanced from the characters, and this is one reason why this trilogy is less accessible and immediately likeable than its predecessor. Pacing and the shear confusing breadth of the story are additional problems. Yet for the reader who can settle down for a challenging but comfortable saga, there is an extremely strong story at the heart of this – multiple sympathetic and inherently interesting characters engaged in significant and compelling plots, in an interesting world. I’ve struggled through the trilogy, I know, chipping away at it chapter by chapter. But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy it – or that I wouldn’t recommend it. I most certainly would.

One warning, though: some readers don’t like rape. There have already been rapes in previous volumes, but the rape and sexual assault quotient does accelerate here. Personally, I think this is an excellent thing, exploring the consequences of terrible actions in a way that felt sympathetic, textured, and never gratuitous. But it needn’t always be comfortable – some of the aftermath of one rape, for instance, makes for some of the most horribly uncomfortable reading I’ve encountered in a genre book. Frankly, I think that’s a good thing.

—-

Adrenaline: 4/5. Full marks toward the end, but it does take a little while to ramp up to speed.

Emotion: 4/5. I’m not sure I cried, but I certainly had very moist eyes at least twice. Perhaps it still didn’t have the payoff I might have hoped for given the amount of investment in the characters, but certainly not a cold or arid novel.

Thought: 4/5. Between the fascinating characters and the fascinating, challenging developments around them, together with a well-worked and sophisticated plot, my brain was really enjoying this one.

Beauty: 4/5. Kicked up a notch from Hobb’s usual utilitarian level by the symmetry and elegance and emotive beauty of a number of key climactic scenes.

Craft: 4/5. Hobb’s prose isn’t sparkling, and there are minor errors and omissions made. However, overall this has an above-average level of craft – both emotional and action scenes are well-written, a considerable amount of information is doled out with a light and graceful hand (and excellent timing), plots, foreshadowings, repetitions and in-world allusions are handled deftly and carefully, and character development and presentation are largely excellent, even if I might want a little more limelight for the supporting cast.

Endearingness: 4/5. I still don’t quite adore this trilogy. Because of its giant cast of characters (I think there are over 20 POV characters alone, though admittedly some are minor) and disparate plot threads it’s hard to immerse us fully in any part of the story – it feels as though in order to show us everything, Hobb has had to use a wide lens. For some authors this can work, but as Hobb intentionally uses complex, often challenging characters who need close exploration to bind us to their more sympathetic sides, and indeed plot developments that (with some exceptions) tend to the subtle rather than the pyrotechnic, the wide lens leaves us often feeling a little less close to the action than we’d like to be. That said, I do really like the novel. It has some very memorable and sympathetic characters, it has a delightfully weird and tingly background plot development, it’s immersive, and for the most part it’s jolly fun to read (though, again, it’s not for those who need breakneck writing styles and constant physical action scenes).

Originality: 3/5. Unsurprisingly, the conclusion has less room for originality than the development section had – there are only so many ways to bring an end to a plot on this scale, and while Hobb certainly doesn’t fall into cliché and manages to surprise a little here and there, the general structure and direction feels, perhaps inevitably, more familiar.

Overall: 6/7. VERY GOOD. I know that a lot of this review didn’t sound that glowing, and I’ll admit that this book didn’t blow me out of the water. It isn’t brilliant at anything. On the other hand, it isn’t bad at anything either – I’ve pointed out a few (I think) flaws, but there are no real weaknesses. Aside from an average level of originality – which is to be expected given the genre and the fact that this is a plot-concluding novel rather than a plot-developing or plot-introducing novel – this book is above par in every way. I think that the trilogy as a whole suffers by its placement between the two Fitz-focused trilogies, because this is a long way from Farseer thematically and structurally and emotionally – I think that the disappointment of Fitz-fans struggling to adapt to such a change has given it an undeserved reputation. It’s true also that the genre is an issue here – it’s close enough to epic fantasy for many readers to dismiss it, but it doesn’t directly appeal to core epic fans either. It’s not dark lords destroying the earth unless they’re stopped by teenage farmboys – it’s a bunch of women talking about relationships, politics, trade, ships, and sea serpents. [With added pirates and magic and fighting and sea serpents and toxic mutation and buried secrets (literal and metaphorical) and rape, and some more rape, and a prophet]. Nonetheless, I do think that if you take this series on its own merits, not expecting it to be Jordan, not even expecting it to be Fitz, it’s a really good old-fashioned sprawling yarn with great characters that now and then makes you think. Which I think is a very good thing to be. And it ends on a high note.

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One thought on “Ship of Destiny, by Robin Hobb (Liveship Traders #3).

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

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