Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Robin Hobb - Liveship Traders [Trilogy Review]

Life is not a race to restore a past situation. Nor is it a race to the future. Seeing how things change is what makes life interesting. (p. 312, Ship of Destiny)

The truly amazing thing about Liveship Traders is that Robin Hobb has created a society…wait, what? Isn’t that the goal of (almost) all second world authors? Yes, but I don’t mean that Hobb created a list of rules, or a collection of customs, or a homogenous mass of bizarre rituals. No, Hobb’s creation is multi faceted and deep, beautifully realized and felt with every word that’s read of her creation.

Characters, or people, are shaped by the world around them – even as they, in turn, shape that world – and few authors better understand this than Hobb. Nobody in these novels exists in a vacuum. Instead, each and every character is a result of their environment, whether they are struggling to live up to the expectations of others or trying to break entirely away from those predefined paths.

This is character driven fiction in every sense of the word; the plot meanders and grows, always organically, as a result of the characters’ decisions, even when that character is wrong or misguided. Main characters will end up opposing one another, threads will wander and twist, and some events even seem to be striving in the opposite direction of the rest of the novel, but there is not a single point where a viewpoint feels false, where a plan seems concocted only for convenience’s sake.

In order for something like this to work, the characters need to be exceptional. And they are. These are people driven by their own desires and needs, who have their own goals and fears, and always act in a way dictated by their virtues and flaws. Everyone here believes their own goals to be paramount, and, within that character’s viewpoint, it is impossible to think otherwise. Hobb’s skill is not to make the epic personal, but rather to make the personal the stuff of epics. Simple tragedies, the kind that we experience without having to fight dark lords upon mountaintops, the kinds that form the core of almost every life, are the center of this story.

Personal injustices affect us just as much as they do the characters. The catalyst for much of the trilogy is Althea’s loss of her liveship, the Vivacia. Convinced that her sister’s husband would be better able to support the family as a whole, Althea’s father deprives her of her inheritance. The scene hits with the emotional impact of Martin’s famous Red Wedding. This was never a world shattering event, and yet I was as furious as I’d ever been made while reading; at that moment, if I’d had the ability to reach into the book, I would have throttled Kyle Haven.

Even that, however, is not where the true power of Liveship Traders lies, because, you see, Hobb’s characterization is unbiased, and, when I was in Kyle’s head, I understood his reasons, I understood why he did what he had to do, I even agreed with him. The fact that Hobb can do both ends, can make both sides feel as just as the other, can stir up the reader’s one way and then twist it the other, is the core of The Liveship Traders success.

Furthermore, the lackadaisical pace of The Liveship Traders gives characters time to grow. These books are not a series of trials or challenges from which the characters come out at the end with a tidy moral lesson. They are, instead, brutal transformations, where every character is morphed and shaped by the events around them and by what they have to experience. Often, at the end of difficult journeys, characters will be presented with what they’ve been striving for, only to realize that it no longer fits them as it once did.

Malta is a great example of this. At the book’s start, she is spoiled and childish, not to mention wholly unlikable. As time progresses, she’s forced to mature. By the book’s end, she is a totally different person, even though the characteristics that shaped her before are still present, and even though she never went through a magical epiphany that reorganized her whole personality in a single, glorious instant.

The first book in the trilogy, Ship of Magic, is slow to start, as many of the characters seem unsympathetic, and the cast as a whole is too far apart to really influence one another yet. Still, the characterization draws you in within only a few pages, and you’re soon enthralled as events that start simple slowly begin to spiral out of control.

The supernatural is muted here, present but far from center stage. What few elements of true magic there are are blended seamlessly into the rest of the narrative, made normal by the character’s perceptions and used to emphasize the cast’s humanity rather than to simply drive the plot.

Mad Ship is where the stakes are upped throughout, with the beginnings of the plot that will link the series together becoming apparent. The various conflicts that determined the first book’s events are magnified here, the societies established in book one on the verge of splitting open. Where Ship of Magic was a meandering journey through increasingly interesting places, Mad Ships is a disparate but still cohesive sprint through ever more affecting heights of tension.

Hand in hand, with the growth of the stakes is the presence of magic in the narrative. Ship of Magic showed us a relatively standard world, with only the slightest hints of the otherworldly to give it flavor and direction. Here, by contrast, events are often decided by the ever growing presence of those otherworldly elements.

Everything still works, however, because those elements are still fundamentally a part of the narrative. Rather than supersede the various character stories that Hobb has built up to this point, the supernatural plays into them, exaggerating strengths and weaknesses while still sticking to the ground rules that have been established up to this point even if Hobb is busy shattering our perceptions while she does it.

Furthermore, the magic is just damn cool. None of it is particularly original, but we’ve been made to care about the world to such an extent at this point that that doesn’t matter. The reveals given here are both jaw dropping and horrifying, and the atmosphere that Hobb manages to evoke is haunting and beautiful in all the right places.

The plot of The Liveship Traders is almost like trying to make something out of a disorganized ball of string while seeming to do nothing at all. Patterns slowly began to emerge in Ship of Magic, but things are more than leisurely as the individual pieces seem more inclined to move under their own volition and to their own ends than to any master plan. Mad Ship is nothing short of frantic when compared with its predecessor, but the events still feel just as character driven as they did before.

With Ship of Destiny, though, you can clearly see Hobb’s fingers in the frame as they manipulate the strands into the shape she needs them to be in, regardless of where they just seemed poised to go. The once organic plot now becomes contrived, characters picked up off of their natural courses and plopped down somewhere convenient with no regard to their wants or desires. By the time the third or fourth piece is about to be rammed into place for the climax, it becomes hard to even feel that Hobb tried to disguise the fact that she, quite literally, dropped him out of the sky.

A prime example of the simplification of everything that came before is the Bingtown situation. Where the first two books featured an increasingly fractured community, one where no easy solution was present, Ship of Destiny features a cartoonish and generic villain take power by being a puppy-eating demon, his every threat counteracted by his oh-so-obviously-eminent downfall.  

Worse still is the use of magic. No longer are the dragons and serpents, the seething cities and sentient ships, a part of the plot, an influence on the characters. Instead, the supernatural steps up and takes control of the whole journey, tossing the motivations and actions of the characters we just read about casually aside as they assert their own dominance and narrative directions. Partway through the book, a certain magical character instructs the characters:

"I have a task for you, [name]. It is of utmost importance. You and your fellows must set aside all else to attend to it, and until it is completed, you must think of nothing else. […] The task you must perform is vastly more important than one human's mating. I honor you with an undertaking that may well save the whole of my race." (p. 355-356)

A supernatural creature insisting its own tasks are far more important than that of us lesser humans? Fascinating. The humans actually going along with this and just about abandoning all of what made them interesting characters and the book a gripping read? Less fascinating.

The Liveship Traders is one of the absolute best works of character in fantasy or any other medium. Events are built to a fever pitch over several excellently paced and plotted books, the experience something like what might result from taking Fitz’s treatment in Farseer and expanding it to everyone in sight. Then, in the final volume, the whole thing falls apart, resolving the events and conflicts that were built up without ever resolving the characters internal and external crisis, explaining how everything fits together without bothering to mention why the pieces should be put together that way or how they feel about their new positions. It’s not enough to ruin what comes before, but it is enough to deny The Liveship Traders the position in the fantasy hierarchy that it deserves. 


  1. I read the beginning of your post, then skipped the rest.

    You see, I have all three books, but haven't had a chance to read them yet, and I don't want any spoilers!

    I've read Hobb's Farseer trilogy and LOVED it, and I just started the Soldier Son series.

  2. Excellent review! You hit the nail right on the head - Robin Hobb is one of the best in the business and one of my personal favourite authors.

    Have you heard of Lynn Flewelling? She writes in a similar style of great characterization, though is more closely related to the Farseer trilogy than Liveship.

    Check out my review and see what you think!


  3. Thanks for the recommendation and the kind words about the review. I read one book by Flewelling - The Bone Doll's Twin - a few years ago and found the characterization quite excellent. I'll hunt down the Nightrunner series at some point and give it a go.