I don’t write a lot of full-length book reviews. I prefer quick updates on what I’ve read recently, short and to the point, enough to recommend and maybe spur some discussion, but not concise reviews. The only time I write longer pieces is when I come across a book that really captures my imagination, for example, last months The River of Doubt Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard, a fantastic read filled with danger and adventure rivaling any fictional account. Robin Hobb’s The Liveship Traders is a masterpiece of fantasy writing and I feel compelled to recommend it to all my friends who enjoy intelligent character driven fantasy literature.
If you know me and follow me on here you know that I believe Robin Hobb is the best Fantasy writer out there. I loved the first Farseer Trilogy, so much so that I’m listening to the audiobook version on audible with my wife. We are currently on the second book, and I’m enjoying the series in this format. But, when I finished the initial Fitz series I was a bit hesitant to go on with the Liveship Traders. It focuses on a different set of characters and unlike the Farseer books it’s written in third person with multiple point of views. I put off reading it for about two years, but when I finally started it last month I couldn’t stop. Fitz and the Farseers are fantastic, but The Liveship trilogy is the best fantasy trilogy I’ve ever read.
The massive trilogy is made up of Ship of Magic, Mad Ship, and Ship of Destiny, each hefty fantasy tomes. The Liveship Traders is the saga of the Vestrits, an old Trader family from the exotic port colony of Bingtown. Bingtown Traders are the old money elite, descendants of the original founders of the city, and unique for owning mysterious living ships made out of wizardwood. Ships that are quickened by the death of three generations of family, becoming living beings that have the memories and personalities of their past captains.
The trilogy follows the Vestrits, as their family Liveship, the Vivacia becomes aware after the death of the family patriarch. His beloved daughter Althea, who grew up sailing with her father expects to inherit Vivacia but her mother and older sister instead grant Captainship to her brother-in-law Kyle, a hard man who decides to take his meek son Wintrow onboard and lead the financially burdened family into the new burgeoning slave trade. The events and decisions set off a chain of events that have massive consequence not only for the Vestrits but for Bingtown and the whole world.
Slave traders, sea serpents, pirate captains, pirate kingdoms, jungles, ancient cities, violence, and high seas adventure. This trilogy has it all and the best portrayal of dragons as ancient hyper-intelligent alien creatures I’ve ever read in fantasy. But for all the excitement Robin Hobb’s ultimate strength and what elevates her writing above other fantasy lies in her characters. The depth of characterization and growth is unmatched in fantasy. Her characters are living, breathing, beings that are often deeply flawed yet grow and learn as the narrative advances and they fight to survive through the difficult trials of Hobb’s world.
Hobb’s characterization is often so complex that characters you love at first go on to fail and disappoint while characters that begin as despicable and nasty become heroic and intriguing. The greatest example of complex characterization lies in the trilogy’s primary villain, the pirate Capitan Kennit. Hobb’s writing is so outstanding that all Kennit’s despicable behavior is plainly laid out, his vile thoughts are revealed to the reader, yet somehow you fall for his gaslighting and begin rooting for him just like the characters in the book. Kennit is one of the most complex and intriguing villains I’ve ever read and an outstanding achievement.
The Liveship Traders Trilogy is outstanding, complex, fantasy, that left me wanting more. The depth of characterization is the best I’ve read in any modern fantasy novel and while I have ten more Robin Hobb novels to read in her Realm of the Elderlings setting I’m going to predict that this trilogy will reign at the top of my list of favorites for many years to come.