Review | Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb


I love fantasy, but since I finished the current installments of the A Song of Ice and Fire series I haven't been able to find anything that really engulfed me and drew me into the world in the way good fantasy should. Not for lack of trying, I'd tried several authors, including one of Hobb's earlier books, but just never found anything that clicked. I was lamenting this issue to Luke and he suggested not starting at the beginning with Robin Hobb, but with the Liveship Traders. I also know that Mercedes ADORES this trilogy so it's come highly recommended. The only thing that was putting me off was the sheer size of the damn things.

Ship of Magic is a grimace worthy 880 pages long. I'm not the fastest and I'm easily distracted. This took me most of April, with me reading two books and three graphic novels at various intervals. I found that that stopped me burning out and giving up, but it also means that I felt like by the time I finished it on a blurry eyed morning before work, I had been reading the book for about ten years.

However, this was time well spent. Ship of Magic is a masterful piece of fantasy, written by someone who truly understands the genre, and has the skill to create a story that is at once a classic, traditional fantasy novel, yet subverts the genre in all the right places. She plays with gender and the tropes that go with it, her world is at once the epitome of a fantasy land yet something fresh and original.

Ship of Magic follows the Vestrits, a family of Traders who sail aboard a 'liveship', a ship that will come to life when members of three successive generations of a family die aboard her deck. The story starts as the ship Vivacia is readied for her ageing captain, and the third in a row, to come aboard and pass away on her decks so she can be brought to life. The story follows various members of the Vestrits as well as several characters connected with the ship. There are also a number of seemingly unrelated strands of narration, that begin to weave together throughout the novel.

Hobb's real standout are her characters. When I read, I have trouble forgetting that I'm reading a book, I can never treat the characters as people, instead reading them always as things that have been designed and crafted. I can appreciate a well written character, or get annoyed at one that follows stereotypes, but they are always 'creations' in my mind. This book completely obliterated that, Hobb's cast was just so real and complex and dynamic, each character incredibly just as well developed, self contradictory and impossible to truly understand as real people. I found myself abandoning any attempts to critically analyse her ability to build character and just flinging myself into a huge emotional investment. The last few pages, where we see certain characters in great distress saw me putting the book down for a few minutes at a time, because I couldn't bear to watch this character I'd spent so long with and come to really love, suffering in the way they were. Even more impressive are Hobb's villains. The assholes of the book are relatively apparent. It's not like Game of Thrones where people slide around on the scale of grey, we know, more or less, who our bad guys are. However we get a number of chapters from their points of view, and so while they infuriate us with the utterly prickish way they behave, with each character you also completely understand their motivations. It's hard to explain without giving spoilers away, but Hobb has created a number of 'bad' characters, that are still completely human and totally justified in their own minds. That is something I rarely see done properly in any story and Hobb just does it with such ease.

The story is sprawling and complex, but never in a way that feels gratuitous, or purely for reader frustration (which is something I often felt reading ASOIAF) it doesn't feel like the reader is being flung in a tornado of events, rather that, although we don't necessarily understand the full scale of the story yet, we are in completely safe hands and things will be revealed at the right time. The end of the story saw a lot of questions answered... and even more raised, and I cannot wait to start the next one. I think I'll give myself a few weeks break, just so I can read a few books without having a massive tome hanging over my head.

If you've read this, let me know what you think. If you haven't read it, for God's sake read it and if you've read the whole trilogy keep your spoilers away from me or endure a painful death.

Thank you for reading!


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