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Ship of Magic, book #1 of The Liveship Traders, by Robin Hobb

Review by Saiph

A fantasy adventure by Robin Hobb set in a world of merchant traders and pirates. Set mostly on the sea and in Bingtown, a colony town of merchants.

This could have been a much shorter book. Much shorter. The final destination of the plot becomes clear as soon as Hobb introduces the main characters, but she still sets a leisurely pace getting there, which is odd, because the intervening 600 pages don't do much in the way of character development.

Personality-wise, most of the characters end almost exactly as they begin. Hobb sets up obvious directions for their development, but only pursues those directions with a few of her characters, and even then the development is slight. The writing itself is good, and Hobb uses a couple of her characters to make some interesting observations and comments, but most of the characters are forced to avoid their inevitable disillusionment for far too long. I thought the villain was particularly ill-conceived, since Hobb uses him as little more than a plot-tool for making those around him miserable, even when doing so totally undermines his credibility as a character. The only pair of truly sympathetic characters have the smallest parts in the book. Hobb allows each character only one note to sing as the plot slowly grinds down resulting in strained characterization.

Reading over my review so far, I realize I've been pretty vague even for a no-spoilers review. But to even explain even the initial set-up I feel would totally blow the plot, which to me indicates it was too weak a story arc to stretch out to full novel length in the first place. The predictability of the plot and the characters sap any punch from the climax. For me, Ship of Magic was tedious reading. The bones of this book would make a meaty first third (or maybe even first fourth) of a single novel of similar size, leading me to believe that the other two Liveship Traders books will be similarly bloated and slow. (I'll try to reserve final judgment until I've read them, though.)

The bright spots that kept me going were the aforementioned two sympathetic characters, in whose fate I am genuinely interested, and Hobb's gift for setting. The world she's created South of the Six Duchies simmers with an adventurous atmosphere and mysterious magic (boy, that was some corny alliteration, but, oh well), as opposed to the more systematized magic of other books, which for me always takes some of the magic out of the magic. I really enjoyed Hobb's ability to capture an exotic mood with a few imaginative items, descriptions, and names. Hobb also has a great knack for names. I thought all of the town names were winsome and colorful, and the character names were for the most part original and at the same time "real" sounding. Faint praise, perhaps, but it was enough to keep me reading the book hoping the characters would start to live up to their surroundings. Maybe they will in the next one.

So, I give Ship of Magic 2 out of 5 amulets for generally poor characterization, a slow and predictable plot, but good mood and setting.


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