A storm is brewing in the Vestrit family. The patriarch, Ephron, is dying, the family debts are growing daily, and the first voyage of their liveship Vivacia with son-in-law Kyle Haven as captain bodes poorly for the future. When Ephron dies, passing his wisdom and experience to Vivacia, the ship and estate pass to Keffria Haven, and thus to Kyle who, contrary to tradition in the old trader families, believes that women’s management has caused Vestrit fortunes to falter. Althea, the younger daughter who has sailed on Vivacia for years is put off the ship, along with the mate Brashen Trell and some others of Ephron’s chosen crew, and replaced with men of Kyle’s choosing. Since liveships, vessels brought to life with magic, require a member of the family to sail them, particularly once “quickened” and come to their full consciousness, Kyle has summoned his oldest son Wintrow back from the monastery he was dedicated to, forcing him to become a sailor. What’s more, Kyle has decided that the solution to the Vestrit financial crisis lies in changing the usual cargo, turning the Vivacia into a slave ship.
Althea runs away. The situation on the between Kyle and Wintrow Vivacia deteriorates, and the situation at home becomes even worse as the tensions between Ronica, Ephron’s widow, and Keffria are only put aside when they realize that Malta, thinking that her mother and grandmother are prudish and lame, has decided she is old enough to start courting boys and in her naivete and fascination with finery becomes entangled in a courtship with a member of a powerful family from the Rain Wild—a place of magic and death that made the traders of Bingtown wealthy, but at what cost?
And then there is the pirate Kennit, determined to capture a liveship and use it to become king in the Pirate Isles.
Ship of Magic is a fascinating and richly complex book that takes place in the same world as The Assassin’s Apprentice, but quite far to the south. There is a large, possibly apocalyptic story in its backdrop, since we receive glimpses of worms, large carnivorous sea creatures that can terrorize ships, who may have some connection to liveships and believe that a time of change is upon the world, but that is not the driving narrative. The plot arc involving the pirate Kennit is more fully developed, but it serves as a Chekhov’s gun that is repeatedly returned to than a central feature of the plot.
No, Ship of Magic is a family drama in a time of social change. The book is built around the figure of Kyle Haven, despite rarely, if ever, getting his perspective. At the outset the family largely accepts Kyle despite that he is not from one of the old families. He makes Keffria happy (they have three children together, but this happiness is both physical and emotional), he is an experienced sailor and wants what is best for the family. Once the stabilizing presence of Ephron is gone, however, Kyle’s domineering attitude and lack of respect for tradition come to the fore. The latter is particularly problematic because he is both unaware of and indifferent to old contracts with the Rain Wild Traders that require gold or blood and the magic that animates the liveships. The only thing worse than bringing enslaving your son on a liveship so that it will sail is turning the liveship into a slaver, but Kyle only sees the one as a way to fulfill a requirement and the other as cargo. Back in Bingtown, his presence likewise looms large since his actions caused Althea to disguise herself as a boy and flee to sea under a false name and for Malta to defy her mother and grandmother in the belief that Kyle will side with her.
There is a lot I liked about Ship of Magic, certainly enough that I will read the remainder of the series at some point. I am now absolutely convinced of the importance of EQ in this world. Not only does it govern the functioning of a Liveship since it is that relationship between ship and family that allows it to sail (and the ship’s ability to sense emotions of everyone onboard is a key reason why people don’t use these vessels to carry slaves!), but despite moments of action and adventure on the high seas, all of the tension in the book is pulled from relationships created and broken, whether from love, hate, or respect. To wit, Kyle is the central villain in the story, and Hobb sets him up to fail with deep character flaws, but not because he is evil. (There is an evil character in the story. His name is Torg.) Kyle’s villainy lies in his sexism and in his inability to see outside of what he wants, which is fine when, for instance, he wants to please his wife, but less so when it leads him to ignore Trader and Vestrit custom. These emotional tension sometimes made the book tough to read, but, despite the length of the book, they did not bore me.
I also appreciated the complexity of Ship of Magic. The book contains an unusually large number of different points of view, more than The Eye of the World and the same number as Game of Thrones. This feature, however, also led to one of my main complaints. Ship of Magic is long and sprawling and interesting, but its structure seemed incomplete. There are multiple plotlines that are eventually brought in touch with the Vestrit family drama to greater or lesser extents, but that are largely at odds with the rest of what is happening or that spring up seemingly out of thin air or are mysteriously dropped. This is good in the sense that it leaves the impression of a richly textured world, but bad because it muddies up the book. This is fine in the middle of a series where the readers are already on the hook, but not great as a premier that contributes to the stereotype of fantasy literature as bloated and dense.
While more difficult than it sounds, I do wonder if there was a different structure that could have split the series differently, perhaps into five or six shorter books each with a clearer coherence that would then allow Hobb to receive more credit for what she does well. There is a touch of artificiality about the cultures in the world, with names a little on the nose and instances where “northern” and “southern” stereotypes of our world are transposed into this land, but they are not reduced to tokenism. The social changes at Bingtown, both cultural and economic, with the influx of slavery and a relative decline of the old families that signed the compact with the Rain Wild Traders, form a well conceived and executed backdrop that offer avenues for challenging the Vestrit family and the emotional payoffs in Ship of Magic are earned at every step, better than most novels I’ve read regardless of genre.
I am now reading Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen and while I can appreciate its importance and how it captures moments in American history, I am not loving it thus far. I have a few directions I can go after that, but am very much enjoying my streak of science fiction and fantasy written by women suspect that I will be reading N.K. Jemisin’s The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky in close succession.