Robin Hobb (penname for Megan Lindholm) is a globally recognized, acclaimed writer. Her tales of Fitzchivalry Farseer are some of the most beloved fantasies on the shelves. She’s written two trilogies about the Royal Bastard and has begun a third trilogy which is being called “Fitz and the Fool.” Here at the Completist, I’ve tried to feature authors who may have flown under the radar but this time around, I’m featuring a series that doesn’t necessarily feature the author’s best known character. Admittedly, Robin Hobb is far from such an “under the radar” author. (At one point in time, there was talk of her outselling George R.R. Martin in Europe). With that, let me introduce you to Bingtown, a port/trading city south of the Six Duchies (the primary location of the novels featuring FitzChivalry Farseer) and the primary setting for “The Liveship Traders” trilog. Like some previous installments of this column, it has been quite a while since I read these books (I read them as each book was published 1998, 1999, 2000), but much of the emotional impact of the novels remains very strongly with me.
The first novel Ship of Magic, introduces the main players: the Vestrit family and their associates, and one of the primary locales of the novels – Bingtown. As the title implies, the Vestrits, like many of the shipping trading families, have a magical ship constructed of Wizardwood, a material which provides the sentience of each of the ships once three generations of family members have lived and died in service to the ship. The Liveships are so valuable because they are the only vessels which can traverse the dangerous waters which border the Rain Wilds, where many valuable and ancient artifacts can be found.
The novel opens as the Vestrit family’s liveship Vivacia quickens (the process by which a liveship awakens) when patriarch Ephron Vestrit dies aboard the ship. Ephron’s daughter, Althea is ready to take over the captaincy until she learns that her father willed the ship to Keffira, his other daughter whose husband Kyle becomes captain with the goal of restoring the lost Vestrit family stature by entering the slave trade. Unfortunately for Kyle, a member of the family bloodline must be on board the awakened ship, but rather than have his sister-in-law Althea on board, he brings his son Wintrow aboard. The young man is so reluctant because he is torn from his priestly studies, which he saw as his life ambition and goal. Althea poses as a man on another ship to continue to gain sea experience and finds herself part of a crew which includes the member of another downtrodden Bington family: Brashen Trell.
Hobb also gives readers one of her more fully-formed characters in all of her fiction: the pirate Kennit. This pirate with morals has an ambitious goal – (though one likely familiar to genre readers) – he wants to become King of the Pirates, uniting all privateers on the open seas under his rule. His reputation as a man of honor is raised by targeting slaver ships, freeing the slaves and killing the slavers. Kennit also desires a liveship of his own. Thus we have our initial conflict: Kennit seeks to take over Vivacia which is both a liveship and a slaver. Add to that, Ronica (Ephron’s widow and Althea’s mother) who is left to struggle with the debt the family has incurred to the mysterious Rain Wilds people who provided the Vestrits with their Liveship. In doing so, Ronica also must oversee the livelihood of Malta, her granddaughter and Kyle and Keffira’s only daughter.
In this opening series novel, Hobb crafts a fantastic world and imbues her characters with a great deal of life and plausibility. She’s been known for torturing her darlings and this is no different with Althea and Wintrow. Not only is Wintrow torn from his life’s goal/passion, he is tortured/abused… rather trained by his father, and struggles with Vivacia becoming a slave ship. Like Wintrow, Althea’s life goal was stolen from her when her father passed Vivacia to her brother-in-law.
Another character to recently arrive in Bingtown is Amber, a ship carver who finds the abandond and marred (his eyes are missing) liveship Paragon on remote beach. Amber also befriends Althea and finds herself allied with the downtrodden young woman.
The second novel in the series, Mad Ship, expands the cast with Hobb focusing a great deal on Malta Vestrit, Wintrow’s younger sister. Initially, Malta is a self-centered, spoiled brat of a character. Few characters I’ve ever read filled me with such annoyance and hatred when I first encountered the character. She is something of a puppet-master, playing characters off of each other in order to get what she wants, not caring about anything except herself.
With Kennit now in charge on Vivacia, he is not doing so well. His injuries are healed by both Wintrow and Vivacia, which strengthens the bonds between the three of them. Kennit now has the requisite peg leg associated with the image of a pirate. Kennit puts Kyle on the island where his mother resides as a makeshift prison.
We learn a great deal more about Kennit in Mad Ship; how his father was killed (whom Kennit idolized), his mother imprisoned with her tongue removed by the pirate Igrot who took Kennit as his cabin boy. Kennit’s family owned a liveship (Paragon) themselves, which was taken over by Igrot. The pirate Igrot beats, tortures, and sexually abuses the young Kennit and forces Kennit to commit atrocities of his own until Kennit can finally exact his revenge. Kennit breaks from his past and forges a path of his own, with the aforementioned goal of becoming a Pirate King (much like Igrot styled himself).
There is a great deal of unrest in Bingtown with the Old Traders seeking to get out from under the dictates of the Satrap, the ruler of the connected lands wherein Bington is situated, and his New Traders, the Chalcedeans who very much favor slave trading. Althea, Amber and Brashen reawaken to the liveship Paragon. Through her skill at woodcarving, and with some magical aid, Amber gives sight back to Paragon. Malta, meanwhile, becomes more embroiled in the politics between the traders and the Satrap, and attacked by rogues as when they attempt to return to Malta’s home. Malta eventually escapes but is soon trapped in an earthquake.
The reasoning behind the magic of the Liveships begins to unfold early in the novel when Wintrow finds a caged sea serpent. This is a surprising find because serpents, like dragons are thought to be long gone from the world. By novel’s end, the dragon Tintaglia has hatched into the world.
Ship of Destiny brings the epic storyline to a close, opening with the conflict between the New and Old Trader and a Bingtown that is in very bad shape. Malta’s injury and emergence after the earthquake have awakened a maturity in her. Kennit still has Wintrow under his charms as well as Etta, Kennit’s longtime lover. Kennit begins to devolve and grows madder as the story progresses. Whereas Hobb took the annoying and self-centered character of Malta Vestrit and performed a positive 180 by making Malta an admirable and sympathetic character, Hobb does a reverse-180 and allows Kennit’s true nature as a villain shine through.
There are some elements of these books that are spoilerific not just for the whole series, but for the majority of the fiction Robin Hobb has published, so before I break into that, I’ll say that these books can be considered a Master Class in characterization. Through the two characters of Malta Vestrit and Kennit the Pirate, Hobb twists and turns the emotional spectrum for her readers, upending expectations throughout the three novels. The only other character I initially disliked as much as Malta then came to admire is Sansa Stark (you know, in those stories written by some guy named George). Similarly, with Kennit, Hobb managed to make him so complex with his troubled past and his seeming sense of honor, which were quite contrasted with some of the truly villainous things he did throughout the series.
What stands out about the series in today’s fantasy landscape is how many of the characters are women, and what powerful roles they have. There’s been a larger focus on the gender imbalance in Speculative Fiction over the past few years and Hobb gives readers extremely well-rounded, believable women in this series. Ronica, the matriarch of the Vestrit family, holds a prominent role in Bingtown. Althea is more capable as a captain than her brother-in-law. Malta grows into a strong, empathetic young woman on her journey. What strikes me in hindsight is how, at the time I read these books, it felt such a natural thing for the story to be populated with so many women in these roles. Even if they may have not possessed agency when they were first introduced, they came to have their own agency by saga’s end. In other words I couldn’t imagine these books any other way from a character standpoint.
The liveships themselves are a fascinating and complex twist on the idea of the living ship and one of the few instances of such ships in Fantasy, compared to the many living ships in Science Fiction. The wizardwood from which the ships are carved is a powerful magical substance; some women use it as contraceptive while others use it as good luck. Basically, the bearer can determine what the effects will be.
Also, Pirates! These books have pirates a plenty with so much of the action taking place on sea vessels.
“The Liveship Traders” was the second series I read after loving Hobb’s “Farseer” trilogy. More than a decade has passed since reading the series, I still find myself holding it in very high regard. There are links between this series and the “Farseer” books as well as “The Tawny Man” trilogy, but is possible to read “The Liveship Traders” on its own. If anything, I would even suggest this trilogy as a good introduction to Robin Hobb’s brand of fantasy since it can be read without having to read her other novels.
The full measure of the relationship between dragons, serpents, and liveships come to light. The sea serpents are just one phase of a long life for the serpents, creatures who swim up river and form cocoons. What emerges from the cocoon is a Dragon, but since the Rain Wilds people were carving the cocoons into the ships, that growth process is interrupted allowing for the magical transformation into a living ship.
The main spoiler for all of Hobb’s fiction is the character of Amber. Hobb gives the character some traits that might be familiar to those who have read “The Farseer” trilogy. When Amber re-carves Paragon with a familiar face holding an axe, it becomes much clearer that Amber is the Fool from “The Farseer” and the face of Paragon is FitzChivalry Farseer’s; Fitz’s weapon of choice was an axe. Amber takes on the gender of female in these books, which is in contrast to what many thought was a male character in “The Farseer” novels, but she is no less enigmatic especially with the hints she drops of her life before arriving in Bingtown.