It took me some time to finish this book, as it’s over 800 pages long. This is the first book of the second trilogy by Robin Hobb, the Liveship Traders trilogy. The comparison to the first trilogy, the Farseer, is unavoidable, but there are many differences. The length of the first book is just one – Assassin’s Apprentice is almost half the number of pages. And yet, even Assassin’s Apprentice felt too long at first. This book was plain intimidating. But like the Farseer, it’s well worth the length.
The setting is the Southern edge of the Farseer’s map – a stretch of coast dotted with islands between the towns of Bingtown and Jamaillia. These are referenced in the Farseer, just like the Six Duchies are referenced in the Liveship Traders. But it’s a world apart. Here, the Six Duchies are a wild and uncivilized place – even though women are allowed to work as sailors there, and even though slavery is a common practice in Jamaillia.
The traders of Bingtown are sailing the seas on all kinds of ships, but the most interesting kind is the Liveships – ships made (at least partly) of wizardwood which, after three generations of the family who bought the ship, “quickens” and becomes alive. It’s actually the figurehead at the bow which comes alive, and to me it seems like an awful sort of life. One such Liveship is considered mad (something to do with him killing his entire crew – it’s a mystery, but I assume more is revealed in the second book, Mad Ship) and is left to rot on the shore. Of-course, wizardwood doesn’t rot and cannot be eaten by bugs. So he just lays there like an overturned turtle, unable to move. A terrible existence.
We are following several characters – mainly the Vestrit family, a pirate captain and a sailor with loyalty and romantic connections to the Vestrits. The point of view keeps changing between the main characters, and sometimes it takes an entire paragraph to understand who it is that the text is referring to. It’s actually quite annoying, and at places I had a feeling Hobb did this on purpose – she wickedly enjoyed keeping the reader in the dark for a paragraph every few pages.
So Ephron, the Vestrit patriarch, is dying; upon his death, being the third generation, his Liveship the Vivacia quickens. His daughter Althea is supposed to inherit the ship but instead it is turned over to her older sister Keffria and her husband Kyle, which is not an “Old Trader” and does not understand the ways of Liveships. He forces his 13-year old son Wintrow to sail with him, with the intention to trade in slaves – which has never been done with Liveships before. Along with Brashen, a sailor which was loyal to Ephron and was cast off the Vivacia, Althea attempts to regain the ship from Kyle, meanwhile sailing on other ships. Along comes Kennit, the pirate captain, which has high aspirations towards kingdom and beyond, and dreams of capturing a Liveship – another feat that has never been accomplished, as Liveships have the ability to sail so swiftly when being chased by a pirate ship. And we haven’t mentioned the serpents – snake-like creatures infesting the seas and swallowing people, some of which have the ability to talk (even philosophically); or the Rain Wild people and magic, which is another mystery.
It’s a mish-mash of intertwined stories and creative ideas, but it works, and the reading just flows. As in the Farseer, it takes time to build up the characters – and there are so many of them. I can count at least seven humans who occasionally have the lead point of view, plus one serpent and a couple of Liveships; and there are several other recurring characters (including a serpent prophet) which we also learn to know. I think you need real talent to juggle all these protagonists, but I already know Hobb has it. It takes at least 200 pages to understand where the story is in all those pages. A situation is built in which there doesn’t seem to be anywhere to go – but it explodes in so many ways that you just cant wait for the second book.