Book review of Robin Hobb’s Ship of Magic
Ship of Magic made my list originally as a recommendation by George R.R. Martin on his “Not a Blog” where he listed a bunch of authors to enjoy while awaiting the release of the fifth novel in the Song of Ice & Fire series, A Dance with Dragons. We’re still waiting, and I’m still reading recommended books off his list. I’m glad to say, that with Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb, I’ve been turned on to a fantastic author I had not previously read. My initial impression was, like I’m sure a lot of first impressions about Ship of Magic are, that the author would have to pull off something really special in order for me to believe a book about talking ships. Ship of Magic offers a completely unique and original idea (something pretty hard to come by in fantasy fiction these days), and delivers it in a way that is not only believable, but really cuts straight to the deeper topic of relationships.
These characters are believable. Tough for some authors to accomplish with humans, Hobb takes typically inanimate objects and breaths life into them. Life that is similar in some ways to human, but is intricate in its subtle differences. The variety of characters is enjoyable, and Hobb takes the perspective of the few main characters (including non-humans), as well as some of the secondary characters, which creates an enjoyable blend of viewpoints. Not as vast as some of George R.R. Martin’s works, where he can go for entire novels skipping characters, Hobb’s cast of characters is a wonderful balance. Some of my favorite insights came from the character Wintrow, a teenage Priest of Sa in training, and his teacher’s lessons:
“Wintrow,” he chided softly. “Refuse the anxiety. When you borrow trouble against what might be, you neglect the moment you have now to enjoy. The man who worries about what will next be happening to him loses this moment in dread of the next, and poisons the next with pre-judgement.”
Or his conversations with Vivacia, the Vestrit family liveship:
“This is blasphemy,” Wintrow said fervently.
“Is it? Then how do you explain it? All the ugliness and viciousness that is the province of humanity, whence comes it?”
“Not from Sa. From ignorance of Sa. From separation from Sa. Time and again I have seen children brought to the monastery, boys and girls with not hint as to why they are there. Angry and afraid, many of them, at being sent forth from their homes at such a tender age. Within weeks, they blossom, they open to Sa’s light and glory. In every single child, there is at least a spark of it. Not all stay; some are sent home, not all are suited to a life of service. But all of them are suited to being creations of light and thought and love. All of them.”
“Mm,” the ship mused. “Wintrow, it is good to hear you speak as yourself again.”
Hobb does a fantastic job of moving the point of view from a young, frivolous, barely thirteen year old girl, to her grandmother, the matriarch of the family. There is a healthy cast of pirates, and a few quintessential pirate novel plot points that I won’t get into in this review.
Moving from one character to the next gives the novel a dextrous pace, with the reader never feeling the need to progress the story at either a slower or quicker speed. The book mainly takes place in port towns, or on the open sea. The characters range from once-wealthy families who own liveships, to a great mixture of pirates and sea serpents, to a mysterious society of folk who live up the Rain Wild river. Hobb has actually focused on this society of people for her most recent series, The Rain Wild Chronicles, the first novel of which, Dragon Keeper, was recently released in the UK, and is slated for release in the US in January 2010. I’d recommend starting with the Liveship Traders books, and working your way to toward the new series.
Ship of Magic is definitely an adult novel, with multiple adult-oriented themes running through it, so reader beware. I’m going to take a break from this genre with my next read, The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle.
To be able to take an idea as far fetched as living ships (and other wooden objects) and pull it off as well as Hobb does truly is a testament to her talent for writing creative fantasy literature. The flair with which she builds the characters and world around this central idea in Ship of Magic is the cement in a foundation of an expanding mansion epic fantasy novels. I would highly recommend Ship of Magic as a starting point to Hobb’s world of fantasy books.
You can purchase Ship of Magic over at Amazon.com.
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Fantastic novel with superb characterization, better than Martin, I’d dare to say. The only gripe I have with the book is its sluggish pace which keeps me from extended reading sessions.