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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.)

Robin Hobb's first appearance with The Farseer Trilogy gave readers one of the cover scanbest fantasy works ever published - a humane and enthralling account of one man's rise from nobody to major figure, set in a realistic and original world. But what stood out, apart from the quality of the work, was the strength and complexity of the characters, drawing the reader into their tale with a power so many other fantasy authors lack. The Farseer Trilogy is not fantasy-by-numbers sword'n'sorcery nonsense; volume two has an unforgettable ending, while the work as a whole stands head and shoulders above the likes of Eddings and his ilk.

So it was with some interest that I received the new trilogy, of which The Liveship Traders is the first volume. The reader is transported to those lands (and oceans) to the south of the earlier work, but, unlike the first trilogy, this book is narrated from the points of view of various characters. At first this is disorientating, especially as another lone-view account was expected, but soon the reader is drawn into the tale. There are the undertakings and obligations of the Vestrit family to endure, Brashen and Althea, both children of prosperous parents, yet estranged after following their own paths; Wintrow, sent into life at sea; a vile (yet perhaps life-affirming) pirate; and the two liveships, Paragon and Vivacia, made from a sentient wood that gives them extraordinary powers.

All these characters are woven into the tale with the same magic that characterised the first trilogy, demanding the reader's attention, a skill rarely evident in fantasy fiction. The sense of the moral position of each character is so well conveyed you cannot fail to empathise with them. This however is not the same kind of book as the earlier work; it lacks some of the "centre" of those books, that came from their narrative standpoint, yet it gains a widescreen perspective to compensate. It is a different view of the same big, big world.

The magic, in a strange way, echoes Tolkien's use: there is little by way of "special effects", rather a deeper, spare, almost ecological use.

The writing is in places marvellous. Ship's crew waiting for one of the mysterious sea-serpents:

"The night passed as slow as the flow of black tar. From alert vigilance, all decayed to a state of frayed anxiety."

Robin Hobb is in fact Alaskan author Megan Lindholm, who some time ago won fans for her unusual and perceptive fantasies (eg Wizard of the Pigeons). This is an author with far to go, and yet she has already achieved a lot.

So I look forward to reading the next volume. The immense sea-serpents, who - though it is difficult to tell - do not seem to know their own fate, are perhaps the focus of what is to come; then there is the fate of the liveships themselves. But with characters as vivid as those in this volume the reader can hardly fail to be enthusiastic, and it is Althea, Kennit, Brashen, Wintrow and all the rest that the reader looks forward to meeting again. They possess a curious, even spellbinding mixture of exotic fantasy folk and everyday people that the reader might know - reality and fantasy woven as one.

If I have any complaints (and it seems mean to complain about so good an author) it is that The Liveship Traders does sprawl slightly, being perhaps a hundred pages too long. But the length of a novel can be a difficult thing to judge.

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

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© Stephen Palmer 3 February 2001