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Ship of Magic, Book One: The Liveship Traders by Robin Hobb
(HarperCollins Voyager, 17.99, 656 pages, hardback; published 16 March 1998. Paperback, 5.99, 880 pages, published 1 March 1999.)

As someone who thoroughly enjoyed Hobb's previous excursion into fantasy, the Farseer trilogy, I started reading Ship of Magic with some trepidation. Would it live up to the first trilogy? Would the narrative work as well? Etc, etc. Or would it turn out to be yet another sequel to yet another fantasy trilogy that never quite gels?

On reading the first few chapters, I began to think that it was going to be the latter. Where was the character, like Fitz in the first series, that I could focus on? There was Kennit, a pirate; Wintrow, a priest; Brashen, the First Mate on the Liveship Vivacia; Althea, the daughter of Vivacia's owner; Kyle, Althea's brother-in-law, currently the captain of the Vivacia; Paragon, a beached liveship; Ronica, Althea's mother; and then Vivacia herself. So many characters, all met within the first 50 pages. I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to keep up with them all, and indeed put the book to one side for a few days.

Though set in the same world as her earlier work, the action this time takes place in and around Bingtown, further south than the Six Duchies. In a world where wizard wood is traded with the Families of Bingtown to create liveships, the descendants of the original settlers co-exist with their Rain River relatives who control the wizard wood supplies.

As I got more and more into the world of the liveships, their owners, sailors and would be owners, I started to really enjoy myself. Yes, it had taken a long time to get to know ten plus characters well enough to empathise with them, but once I did, I found myself beginning to follow their lives with interest and hope that they would each attain their goal.

Would Althea, who had grown up believing she would inherit the Vivacia when her father died and whose hopes were dashed when the ship was left to her hated brother-in-law, Kyle, prove her worth as a sailor? Would Wintrow, forced into slavery by his own father, the aforementioned Kyle, be allowed to return to his contemplative life as a priest?

And then there is Kennit, the pirate, charismatic and with an obsession. He dreams of owning a liveship of his own with the idea of ruling as the pirate King.

Hobb brings to life the struggle of her major characters with themselves, and each other. Althea is given the chance to prove herself, though in circumstances she may not have wished for. Paragon begins to live again through his relationships with Althea, Brashen and perhaps most importantly, Amber. And Wintrow learns an inner strength that lets him bargain for his father's life, despite what he has done to him. And Vivacia? Quickened after three lifetimes of her owner's family has passed, she is like a child trying to live in an adult world. Without Althea the true heir on board, she tries to build a relationship with the reluctant Wintrow. She manages to succeed to some degree, he is after all of the blood, even if his religion makes him question her ability to live.

I shall be looking forward to the next novel, to see how Hobb takes us forward: there are still a lot of questions to be answered, and perhaps a journey up the Rain River to meet the wild Rain River Traders.

Review by Carol Ann Kerry-Green.
See also: an alternative review of this book by Stephen Palmer.

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© Carol Ann Kerry-Green 27 June 1998