Ship of Magic

Robin Hobb
Ship of Magic Cover

Ship of Magic


I really enjoyed this. After quite a slow start where I thought I wasn't going to stick with this I am so glad I did.

I picked up 'Ship of Magic' as a freebie in some online giveaway years ago but never got round to reading it before now.

It's the first book in the second trilogy set in Hobb's 'Realm of the Elderlings' setting and the focus is on seafaring, familial and generational drama with lots of piracy and a fair bit of my favourite word in the world- SWASHBUCKLING! Oh yeah, and living, talking ships - known as liveships.

I think I had only read a couple of Hobb's short fiction set in this universe, probably in one of the G.R.R Martin short story collections and to be honest I wasn't over enamoured, but I have changed my mind and hope one day to read more in this series.

The basic concept of a Liveship is that it is a living ship made of wizardwood which grants the ship sentience. They are intimately bound to their owners who are known as Old Traders - a form of settler colonial merchant class. They purchase the ships from Rain Wild Traders, a class of people afflicted by mutations and magic which take generations to pay back. The ships are immediately knowing to a degree but only truly gain sentience when they 'quicken', an act that only occurs once three generations of the owner's family die on ship. The ship then 'belongs' to a member of the owning family and their thoughts and feelings are inextricably entwined.

I loved the approach to this and the questions it poses. To what degree are the ships sentient? Are they a person and do they have rights? Bound to their owners to what degree can they consent to be built, to sail? Are they a slave to their owner or are they one and the same? What is the nature of love bonded through blood and familial love? It's very clever, it asks the reader to think and consider these thoughts. A ship can be viewed as a tool, a slave, a pet, a lover, a friend, a child and I can't help but feel reading this about how we treat our families and also non-human companions. That the liveships are sentient, well-formed characters in the story is beyond doubt, but the nature of them stayed with me long after reading.

The basic theme of the book is a patriarch dies, hands his liveship over to his son in law, bypassing his daughter who loves the ship. Needing a blood relative on the ship he installs his son, a priest who doesn't want to be there on the ship. The family are suffering financially so, 'hard, economic decisions' take place which impact on the family's values.

So in effect the son-in-law is painted as a right bastard who sees the ship as a tool, he wants his son to man up and follow in his footsteps. His son has a deep bond with the ship but feels the pull of his profession more. Wintrow the son makes a lot of choices, all logically and morally correct for him, but none of which give him an easier life. I hurt for him, seeing how much trauma he endures, and his deep feelings for the ship is heart-breaking. Imagine loving someone so much with your core being, but knowing it isn't right for you and you need to be someone and somewhere else. It really got to me, pushing them buttons!

His Dad is a right shitbag and every decision he takes is wrong, but he's written so well, every decision he takes makes sense in his eye. I am not saying I have sympathy for him - he's a slaver, he rules with violence and his patriarchal authority in the family shouldn't be challenged, and yet it felt quite uncomfortable when I realised that this horrible villain is consistently doing what he feels is right. That's excellent characterisation because it would be so easy to portray him as an evil villain to be foiled.

Althea, the daughter is so much fun as a character. She's in her late teens, loves her ship intently and goes on a bunch of adventures essentially impersonating a ship's boy to prove her worth as a sailor to get her ship back. A little part of me loved her, and wanted her to succeed, although for such a large part of the book her quest seems to be filler to another story. I really appreciated her control over her sexuality too -- whilst the threat of sexual violence is never far away disguised as a boy in a man's world there is also an unashamed awareness of her sexual needs and desires, but also her control. There is a love interest, but she is not treated as a swooning damsel waiting to be swept off her feet and I loved the maturity in how this relationship was handled. I guess there are a few rather familiar 'young girl on ship' tropes in a man's world but it's done rather well and with a certain spirit that is really fun and easy to engage with.

Back home Althea's estranged family have drama of their own to deal with. Her mother is trying to hold the families fortunes together according to the traditions of their Trader family status. Althea's sister, and wife of the man who 'stole' her ship is trying to balance the wishes of her husband, her own needs and her rather appalling daughter reaching womanhood. I really liked the character progression of Althea's sister throughout the novel and she's another character who I think has such a depth to her one can really feel all the different forces she is trying to manage. Her daughter makes choice after choice which seem designed to torment her mother. In some ways it mirrors some of those well-known themes of teenage girls pushing back against their mother that feel very familiar.

There are a couple of other sub-plots that feed into the main story. There's a liveship which has had its eyes cut out, which is deemed bad luck and is grounded and their story kind of has that, 'we'll sort this in the next book' vibe. There's also a rather delicious villainous pirate who seems to have an awful lot of luck. There's a plot where he thinks he is getting one over on his crew but is accidentally becoming a hero to the people freeing them from slavery. He's a horrible character but he kind of screams danger and excitement. He's a massive caricature of a typical SWASHBUCKLING pirate but honestly these chapters are so much fun.

So, it felt like quite a while for the different plots to form and for the characters to become established, and in a big book like this it did require a bit of perseverance to hook me in. Once I bought into the book, I really began to love it, and the last third or so was brilliant! The reader can clearly see the different plot threads coming together and you can see it all coming to a conclusion, all the stories that seemed different sailing the seas to the same place. As a reader you can't wait to see the inevitable happen and there is a sense that you are in on the story with the author, observing the characters come together. I really enjoyed it.

The world is rich, the cultures well developed and understood as part of a consistent world. The plot is brilliant interwoven with the characters and by the time I reached the end I was pretty determined that I'll read the rest of the series one day.

Really glad I went back to this.>