Books

Sailing with the Liveship Traders

I have more books to discuss! Earlier this year, I read the Farseer trilogy by Robin Hobb. After a little break (now that I’m aware of the dangers of binge reading and know it’s wise to put some space between books if I don’t want to burn out on a series), I dove into the Liveship Traders trilogy (starting with Ship of Magic), and I loved it even more. Part of that may be that I’m fascinated with sailing ships and love reading about seaside cultures, but I also loved the scope of the series and the varying viewpoints.

This series is about a community built around a group of seagoing traders who sail on magical ships. The ships are built from enchanted wood that’s particularly sturdy. It also absorbs memories from the people on board, and after a few generations of a family working on the ship, with family members dying on board and having their blood absorbed, the ship “quickens” and becomes sentient. The figurehead becomes a living being who can talk and move, and the ship can just about sail itself. But there are costs, as a family goes into deep debt to get such a ship, and it can take generations to pay off that debt. A bad year can get a family in trouble so that they risk losing everything.

At the beginning of the series, things start to go horribly wrong. There are newcomers granted land by a distant ruler who come in and want to make changes. A young woman who believed she would inherit her family’s ship when her father died is shocked to learn that her parents decided to give it to her sister, to be captained by her outsider husband, with his young son (who’d rather be a priest) as the family member who needs to be on board to interact with the ship. The new captain, worried about the family’s debts, thinks that transporting slaves is the only way to make money quickly enough. Meanwhile, there’s a pirate captain who hates slavery and believes that if he could just capture himself a liveship, he could take out the slavers and make himself king of a pirate kingdom. And there’s a group of sea serpents with a vague sense that there’s something they need to find that would explain who they are and what they’re supposed to be. All of these story threads, and a few more, gradually weave together.

I would say that this isn’t the best series to read when you’re stressed because it’s very intense. Bad things happen to characters you like. People make bad decisions, and there are terrible consequences. But it’s incredibly satisfying seeing how it all plays out, so it rewards patience. The characters are really complex. There are few who are totally good or purely evil. The good people make mistakes and the bad people do some good things. There’s a character I hated in the first book who goes through some difficult things that result in a remarkable amount of growth, so by the end I’m cheering for her. There’s a character I go back and forth on — he seems terrible at first and is an antagonist, but then in the middle of doing some awful things he ends up making things much better for a lot of people, including a character who really needs to be helped. He does a lot of good while also being vain and a bit of a megalomaniac, but then he does something I can’t forgive (and I’m not asked to), even as I learn some of what made him the way he is and why he’s been doing these things. Depending on whose viewpoint I’m in and where we are in the story, I sometimes want him to be defeated, sometimes want him to prevail.

The multiple plot threads that seem disconnected that all come together is one of my bits of reading catnip, and what I loved here is that the way things fit together is set up well enough that I had the satisfaction of figuring out what was going on just before it was spelled out in the text — not so far ahead that it felt predictable, but giving me just enough time to get excited about what I’d figured out for myself before it was confirmed. There were a lot of “Oh!” moments in the last half of the last book.

Recommended for those who like a deep dive into a fantasy world and enjoy complex characterization and storytelling, but probably not the best thing to read if you’re under a lot of pressure and have a lot going on in your life (unless reading about people who have worse problems than you do relaxes you or is cathartic). This isn’t a cozy read by any means, but it’s definitely worth the torment.

Leave a Reply