Mad Ship is the second book in Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders series, and one that feels like a direct continuation of Ship of Magic.
Liveships, awakened vessels made of preternaturally hard wizard-wood, are the pride of Bingtown. As expensive as they are exceptional, these ships are the sole possession of the Old Traders, descendants of the original founders of the city, with generations of the families imprinting their memories on their ships through experience and blood. The hulls resist the corrosive effects of the Rain Wild River, allowing the Old Traders to grow wealthy by trading in magical trinkets sourced among the ruins there.
Now times are changing. New Trader families are importing foreign customs to Bingtown, from minor fashions like gender roles to fundamental practices such as slavery. Further, the Jamaillian Satrap, nominally the sovereign of Bingtown, is raising taxes and empowering the traditional enemies of Bingtown, Chalced, to protect the seas from piracy––something that Bingtown residents fear is a prelude to conquest.
In Ship of Magic catastrophe struck the Vestrit family. While carrying slaves under its new captain Kyle Haven, the liveship Vivacia and erstwhile religious acolyte Wintrow Vestrit fell into the hands of the pirate Captain (and self-proclaimed king) Kennit. The Vestrits prepare an expedition to rescue their ship, driven by the impetuous Althea, who has not forgiven her sister for putting Kyle in charge. Their plan involves hinges on the titular “mad ship” Paragon, whose reputation is for having gotten his crews killed. Unknown to them, however, Kennit is determined to win the loyalty of Vivacia as the liberator of the enslaved.
The salvation of the Vestrit family seems to lie with Malta Haven, a young woman torn between fear for her father and being affronted that circumstances will prevent her from taking her rightful place in Bingtown Society. At the same time, her eligibility is an opportunity. If Malta is willing to give up her childhood and marry into a Rain Wilds family, she could secure powerful allies for the Vestrit cause, even if this courtship is haunted by dreams of an entombed dragon who offers her aid in return for freedom.
At the same time, the Vestrits are embroiled in local Bingtown politics where growing resentment against the new impositions threatens to spill out into war, particularly once it is revealed that the young (and arrogant) Jamaillian satrap is on his way to tour their city. A crisis is brewing.
I really liked Robin Hobb’s first trilogy in this world, but took longer to warm to this series. It shows all of the hallmarks of her work, particularly with its surface of tired tropes and cliches belying a story driven by emotional relationships that make it feel like a revelation in storytelling. What sets this series apart from that of Assassin’s Apprentice is that there are many more moving parts. More characters, more settings, and more plot lines, with the result that it was not until midway through the second book that I felt the craftsmanship begin to pay off in earnest.
First, the bad. I remain frustrated with a lot of the superficial trappings of this series. The ship types, for instance, are a mishmash of maritime history. The sovereign of Jamaillia is a “satrap,” a subordinate position in the Achaemenid Persian Empire, which reinforces certain, old, orientalist stereotypes in this series set to the south of this world. Slavery is anethema to the heroes, but is nevertheless omnipresent and one character’s rape is used to further her character development. In each case these are hallmarks of problematic literature that Hobb transcends.
If the underlying theme of Hobb’s earlier books is emotional intelligence that manifests in both character relationships and the magic system, this series adds to the world the importance of memory. Hobb weaves memory through the main plots in both books, but it comes to the fore in Mad Ship adding depth to both the character relationships and to the world itself. Memory of the original charter of Bingtown drives the crisis with Jamaillia and while Kennit strives to forge new memories with Vivacia it is hinted that he is hiding elements of his own past in ways both big and small.
But even more fundamentally, Mad Ship is a story that gradually reveals the nature of this world. In the interludes of Ship of Magic we are introduced to the ravenous sea serpents that are gradually losing sentience. Maulkin, their prophet, is searching for their salvation––one he calls She Who Remembers. What she remembers is how to perpetuate the species, but all Maulkin and his companions find are mindless serpents and sleek silver creatures that skim across the surface, smelling like serpents but swim silently past.
More than merely imbuing the serpents with a life-cycle that is equal parts brilliant and heart-wrenching,* the convergence of this plot and the human stories elevates this book into a masterpiece of the fantasy genre.
[*I usually roll my eyes when I hear fantasy authors say that they wrote X story or Y event “because it was cool,” but for the first time that I can even remember, I exclaimed exactly that to a story element relating to this life-cycle.]
I would recommend reading these first two books in this series in close proximity because I spent a significant portion of Mad Ship trying to remember where Ship of Magic left all of the moving parts, but it is well worth the effort. Warts and all, Robin Hobb’s books are some of the best fantasy novels I’ve read in recent years and I am looking forward to seeing how this series concludes.
I have also finished reading Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad novel, The Trespasser, and am now reading Tonio Andrade’s The Gunpowder Age, a military history of the spread of gunpowder technology.