I have not read so much fantasy since I was in my early 20’s, and it seems to have reawakened my taste for classic fantasy. I began to search around for a good fantasy series that was epic in style, but also somewhat more heroic in form than the other stuff I had been reading.
To that end, Robin Hobb’s Ship of Magic has served nicely. Like the aformentioned, it is well written, contemporary fantasy that does not blink in the face of grittiness or moral ambiguity, but it is more heroic and romantic in style than Game of Thrones. The plot is better structured than The Magician’s Land, and less bleak that Abercrombie’s First Law series. Additionally, the series is by a female author and features complex and well-thought-out female characters, both of which qualities are sometimes hard to find in the genre.
While not perfect, Ship of Magic came through for me. The story is strong and the characters (well, most of them) are compelling, and Hobb does a nice job of world-building, providing moments of empathy and understanding, as well as tricking and surprising us. The plot, like the sea serpents that haunt this book, has teeth and moves both above and below the surface.
I often start reviews with the things I liked best and then move on to the things that could have worked better, but I think it makes more sense here to dispense first with the distraction of that which did not quite work. My single major complaint about the book is that some conversations and some interior dialogues get repeated a bit too often. A few too many times does Ronica Vestrit (the matriarch of the Vestrit clan) bother to yet explain the importance of tradition in Bingtown society. Kyle Haven, a perfect-storm of paternal bullying and control freak, spends a bit too much time “man-splaining” to everyone that he is bullying and hurting them for their own good. It’s not so much that these characters shouldn’t be saying these things- it is important that we understand that Ronica is fighting to preserve her ancient ways and that Kyle is a mean son of a bitch- but these ideas probably could have been repeated a few less times and been just as effective.
The same is true of interior monologues. Hobb is a master observer when it comes to showing us how self-doubt, anxiety and the desire to discover a pure identity for ourselves can lead to all kinds of problems, but some of her main characters ruminations in these areas could have been shortened a bit. We get it.
On a lesser note, my other complaint about the book is that Hobb is not fabulous when it comes to naming people and places in her world. Other writers do it better. Some of the names she comes with it are great. Our main protagonist, Althea Vestrit, for example. Other are solid. Wintrow the young priest comes to mind. But other names just don’t strike the right tone for me. Bingtown, the home port of all the Liveship Traders, for example. To me “Bingtown” just sounds a bit silly, like someplace you would find in Supermario World. Another not-so-great name is the name of our titular magic ship, Vivacia, which- to me- sounds like the name of a drug.
Okay- enough with the negative, because there are also a lot of great things about this book. These positive elements far outweigh the negative, and I urge you to consider reading the book.
A great female author and great female characters: Robin Hobb is an excellent writer. She is very good at observing and describing. She delivers brilliantly described places, people, ships, landscapes and- yes- giant sea serpents. The story of Ship of Magic is compelling, the stakes feel very real. She makes us feel for her characters.
And so many of those characters are female characters. What is nice about this book is that the women and girls in it are very real and complex humans. While there are elements of romance, they are not simply adornments for men, and guess what? Some of the women have absolutely no romantic subplot, and that’s absolutely fine. Some are grandmothers others are children. Some are cruel and some are wonderful. Some are weak and some are strong, but they all encompass the complexity of what it means to be human. One of the best of these is Etta (a former prostitute turned pirate) whose character embodies both a capability for intense love and cold-edged cruelty. On the surface these two qualities seem contradictory, but within the framework of Ship of Magic, it makes total sense, and we can’t help but feel for her despite her violent actions.
Even the hero of the book, Althea, despite being plucky and awesome, occasionally acts like a real selfish ass, and as a reader, we recoil at her behavior, but then I think to myself, “Didn’t I have an attitude and do selfish things in my 20’s?” The answer is “Yes, of course”, so Althea is a hero yes, but also carries the vanities of a young adult too.
Another nice thing is that female characters have true friends in this book. My wife and I often feel that this is missing in a lot of the fantasy genre, where men have comical buddies, and strong buddies, wise mentors, and youthful proteges, but women are often isolated, completely bereft of family and friends, and wandering from one plot point to another.
Ship of Magic has a feminist bent to it, and maybe it gets a bit preachy at times, I appreciated it, especially in light of how much fantasy and science fiction has no interest in exploring the female perspective. In the vein, the novel passes the Bechtel test over and over again.
Hobb is also very good at examining and articulating the complexities of human nature. There were several times where I stopped reading and thought about a question or philosophical expression posed by one of the characters and wondered how it might apply to my own life.Her characters can be driven one moment and doubtful the next. They be heroic than make one lousy decision after another. In the hands of a poor author, this could be confusing, we would feel that the characters lack internal integrity, but in Ship of Magic, this works and we fell as though they are complex. The struggle with the same philosophical questions that we do: What is life? What is love? Who do we owe? What do we owe family? Is there such a thing as destiny or is everything dumb luck? Her characters are like us, they struggle to find the right balance in life. Time and again he characters struggle with the question of identity. Who are they really? Who were they meant to be. The only characters who maintain a very strong consistence and rarely questions themselves are the sociopaths and villains, those who can’t understand or empathize with others.
Speaking of sociopaths, another strong element in the book is our frightening anti-hero, Pirate Captain Kennit. Kennit is charming and dangerous and utterly without scruples, but a great character because he straddles and blurs the lines between good and evil and he is utterly driven, aslo his story line is very funny- it’s a running joke- because in his constant hunger for more power, he keeps on accidentally doing good deeds and helping others. His story is the opposite of “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” In his case, “The road to paradise is paved on mal-intent.”
Hobb is also good at framing large riddles and mysteries within the narrative. What are the liveships that populate the story? Where did they come from? What are the sea serpents? How are they connected to dragons? Who is Amber, the mysterious woodworker? Who is Captain Kennit, really? Who is the mad ship, Paragon? These riddles take form against a rollicking narrative.
In the end, we have a strong book with a lively narrative and compelling structure. Here and there the writing is a bit clunky, and there could have been some more editing, but the Ship of Magic has a strong heart, and I very much recommend it as well as its sequels.