The Liveship Traders by Robin Hobb

ShipofmagicI 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 shipofdestinyhefty 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.

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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.

 

 

 

Fallen Dragon by Peter Hamilton

It’s just that nowhere you live can ever be exotic. That’s only ever somewhere else.

Fallen Dragon

After finishing the fantastic House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds I decided to continue my adventures in Space Opera by returning to my favorite Science Fiction writer, Peter Hamilton. I picked up Fallen Dragon, one of Hamilton’s standalone novels. The other one being Great North Road which I loved. I was not disappointed.

Fallen Dragon takes place in a future where interstellar travel is possible, humans have colonized  and terraformed several new worlds. Unfortunately space travel and colonization is astronomically expensive and unprofitable. The interplanetary corporations who funded colonization now fight and raid colonies in what is deemed “asset realization.” Using private armies equipped with  nearly unstoppable biological combat suits  they overpower the less sophisticated colonists and loot and pillage as much as possible to take back to Earth.

This is the world in which Lawerence Newton lives in. A wealthy son of a colonial corporate magnate who gave up his wealth and heritage for a chance to travel the stars. Instead of becoming the starship pilot he dreamed of he ended up a grunt for Zanitu-Brauns, a vicious raiding corporation, planetary assault army.

The main plot of the novel revolves around Zanitu-Brauns latest raid on a small backwater colony. The operation that should of been a walk in the park for the well trained and equipped Z-B troops becomes a disaster due to a well organized and unexpected counterinsurgency. In the middle of the quagmire Lawrence hatches a scheme. Somewhere on the planet is a treasure that if he recovers would make him and his platoon rich beyond their dreams.

Fallen Dragon delivers on numerous levels and explores several interesting science fiction concepts. Planetary colonization and terraforming is a major part of the novels background, detailing a very interesting colonization of a frozen world. Advanced military technology and the price of interstellar travel is a key element. The price of space tends to be waved away by post scarcity concepts in most scifi. My personal favorite concepts was the exploration of post democratic corporate governments. Where the power of your vote was tied to the amount of stake you held in the corporation. Stake you could earn through working for the corp and investing your pay.

So in closing Fallen Dragon did not disappoint. Another massive piece of space opera mixed with a post cyberpunk aesthetic and a dash of military science fiction, that kept me thinking about its ideas and themes well past the end.

 

Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb

 

“Learning is never wrong. Even learning how to kill isn’t wrong. Or right. It’s just a thing to learn, a thing I can teach you. That’s all.”  

Several days ago I found myself sitting outside my favorite San Diego coffee spot, sipping a hot beverage, and finishing the last chapters of Robin Hobbs Assassin’s Apprentice, the first in the Farseer Trilogy. The dilemma I was facing was how to disguise the fact that here I was, a barbarian, choking up with tears reading a fantasy book. I honestly can’t remember the last time a book made me so emotional. I won’t go into the details of the scene that got me for spoiler reasons but it deals with friendship of the highest order.

Even with my extremely busy schedule I manage to read a lot of books, most of them great, enjoyable pieces of fantasy or scifi. The greatest triumph and exquisitely rewarding experience is coming across a novel that blows your mind, makes me feel something beyond entertainment, makes me want to shove it in all my friends faces while yelling READ THIS NOW! Robin Hobbs Assassin’s Apprentice falls into this category. It goes on my badass shelf(digital shelf nowadays) of favorite novels next to Lord of the Rings, Dune, Hyperion, A Song of Ice and Fire, and the other masterpieces of the genre.

Assassin’s Apprentice follows the young life of a noble bastard Fitzchivalry thrust into the intrigues of court life in the Six Duchies and the peril it entails. As an illegitimate and ignored bastard Fitz gets recruited into the role of becoming the Kings secret assassin. Making matters worse the Six Duchies are being raided by mysterious Red Ships that leave nothing but devastation and despair wherever they appear. Fitz becomes the secret hand of the King, and this first book details his early education in the art of poisoning and political maneuvering.

The beauty of this novel does not lie in a grand plot but in Robin Hobbs fantastic characterization. Assassin’s Apprentice is a slow burn, a patient novel that builds up all of the characters and their relationships slowly with beautiful detail. It’s a adult book that focuses on questions about friendship, loyalty, duty, family, and even your choice of romantic partner. It’s maturity of voice reminded me of one of my other favorite books, The Curse of Chalion, by Louis McMaster Bujold. Both novels focus on character and relationship over plot and action and both novels are masterpieces of the fantasy genre in my opinion.

This novel belongs on the must read list for any serious lover of fantasy. The best part for me is that this is only book one of a long series. I get to finish typing this review and start the next book. So if you love fantasy consider this post the digital version of me shoving it in your face and yelling READ THIS NOW!

The Three Musketeers and Modern Fantasy

The Three Musketeers and Modern Fantasy

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Taking a break from my traditional fare of Fantasy and Science Fiction I decided to jump in and read through Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. For some reason I overlooked this novel in the past probably thinking that the plot was already spoiled due to all the spoofs and movies etc. I can’t even begin to describe how surprised I was when the book blew me away. Not only is it one of the best action adventures I have read but sets the bar so high for other books that I thought were original yet are surpassed by this fantastic piece of literature written 171 years ago. If you have not read this masterpiece do yourself a favor and pick it up, you will not be disappointed.

For readers of Fantasy one of the genre givens is that Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is often the blueprint and baseline for all modern fantasy. Through Tolkien fantasy is also affected by his influences being Germanic and Anglo-Saxon mythology. Heroic characters, Epic world shattering battles, dark evil powers, elves, orcs, trolls, and dragons. But a lot of modern fantasy breaks from that mold and dwells in a perpetual gray zone. The hero’s are often hard to differentiate from the villains, the scale is often smaller, and the setting often grimmer. Dark epics such as GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire and Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire have only superficial elements in common with the heroic fantasy of Tolkien.

With the history of fantasy in mind I read The Three Musketeers and realized that for a book written 171 years ago it read like a piece of modern fantasy. At it’s core and thematically it has more in common with modern dark fantasy than LotR does. Reading it I could not stop thinking that if there was one or two semi-magical elements you could easily shelf the adventures of d’Artagnan next to Jalan Kendeth and Tyrion Lannister.

The Heroes or Anti-Heroes

Bunch of drunken rakes.
Bunch of drunken womanizing rakes.

The four Musketeers(yes there are actually four, it make sense once you read the book), would easily fit on the pages of current fantasy, the darker the better. Our main hero the young d’Artagnan starts off the novel as your typical poor farm boy out to join the King’s Musketeers and make a name for himself. That’s where the similarity ends tho because our d’Artagnan is an arrogant entitled jerk. He picks fights with everybody that looks at him wrong, beats his servant, tricks women into sleeping with him, and spends his days drinking and partying with his buddies. He’s not the hero the movies portray him as.

Athos, the oldest of the Musketeers is your typical wounded dark soldier. A dark sophisticated man with a hidden mysterious past who spends his days drinking his sorrows away and flying into violent rages. Athos is such a moody jerk that he forbids his servant from speaking, forcing him to only communicate by using hand gestures.

Porthos is the big foolish buffoon of the crew. A self centered man who loves fine food, fine wine, fine clothing, and fine women. His sole purpose in life is to weasel his way into older and richer women’s money so he could live comfortably without effort.

Aramis is the group hypocrite. All he talks about is giving up the warrior lifestyle and becoming a man of the church but secretly he is having affairs with noble women. He goes so far as to get into duels with anybody that even suggests he might be having the affairs, even when presented with proof.

The most striking thing I noticed when reading this novel was the fact that unlike the movies that portray them as heroes the Musketeers are quite a serious bunch of assholes. Yes they go on and on about honor and courage but they are far from your shining knights serving the king out of duty, they are a bunch of drunken adventurers doing it for gold and women. They thematically fit more into a modern crime movie about gangsters then your typical heroic portrayals they have been given. Not only that but a lot of the actions they take during the plot of the novel can be seen as treason or downright betrayal of duty to their King and France.

The Villains.

richelieu

The Three Musketeers has two of the greatest villains that set the bar high for their modern successors. The first being the Cardinal Richelieu a real historical figure that is the mastermind behind the events going on in the novel. Richelieu is the power behind the throne running the war against Protestant rebels and Protestant England because the King of France is a worthless childish wimp. Richelieu has spies and agents throughout Europe and has so much power that he can order assassinations and kidnappings on a whim. Reading the novel I could easily see him as an inspiration for characters such as Tywin Lannister, strong, driven men who lead from behind the throne.

OG evil
OG evil

The show stealing, best character award of the novel goes to Milady de Winter, the original badass court seductress and assassin. She’s the Cardinals number one Spy and the darkest character in the novel. She’s a evil bitter woman, twisted on the inside by greed, revenge, and envy. Shes so well written as a conniving seductress that after being in her point of view for several chapters you begin to sympathize with her only to be kicked in the teeth a few pages later when she does something batshit evil. Cersei Lannister has nothing on Milady who would make a perfect companion for Littlefinger.

The Plot

The novel is set in 17th century France during the Siege of La Rochelle. Protestant rebels are surrounded by the Kings Catholic army led by Cardinal Richelieu as the English led by the Duke of Buckingham are preparing to come to their aid. The plot of the novel centers on a clandestine affair between Queen Ann of France and the Duke of Buckingham. Cardinal Richelieu is determined to expose the affair to the King and use it as leverage in the war against England. The novel focuses on our heroes, Musketeers in the service of the king, who get involved in a tangled web of intrigue and romance between the powerful figures behind the scenes in both France and England. Lots of duels are fought, lots of women are won and romanced, and lots of wine is drank.

In closing I highly recommend this classic piece of literature. If you haven’t read it and you enjoy bad ass adventure you will not be disappointed if you chose to follow d’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis around. I also think that a lot of modern fantasy should look at adventure novels like The Three Musketeers for inspiration. The intrigue, wit, focus on fantastic pacing, and action of Dumas’ masterpiece should be a baseline in all modern fantasy. A lot of current work should supplement the obsessive world building of Tolkien by implementing more Dumas style action and adventure.

P.S On the Importance of Translation.

If you decide to read the Three Musketeers please get the proper and modern translation. The best out there is the 2006 version translated by Richard Pevear. Other versions of the book, like the free kindle version are based on the original Victorian English translation and due to Victorian sensibilities downplay a lot of the sexual innuendo between the characters. Do yourself a favor and go for the best version.

Prince of Fools (The Red Queen’s War #1)

prince of fools

“I’m a liar and a cheat and a coward, but I will never, ever, let a friend down. Unless of course not letting them down requires honesty, fair play, or bravery.” -Jalan

I finished 2014 by reading and thoroughly enjoying The Broken Empire Trilogy so I thought it fitting to start 2015 with Mark Lawrence’s latest book Prince of Fools. After finishing it I can safely say that Prince of Fools is a fantastic piece of Fantasy and so far the best book by Mark Lawrence.  I enjoyed his previous work but with PoF Mark really nails dark fantasy, great characters, and exciting adventure.

Prince of Fools(The Red Queen’s War) tells the story of Prince Jalan Kendeth, a lecherous, skirt chasing, boozing, immoral, coward. Jalan is the 10th grandson of the ferocious and powerful Red Queen of the March and with so many relatives ahead of him he spends his days debauching and running up debts. But his days of shiftlessness abruptly end when he inadvertently attracts the attention of the Silent Sister, a mysterious hidden woman rumored to be the power behind the Red Queen. Dark Magic, rumor of undead raids in the North, a ill fated opera, slave fighting pits, and Jalan somehow ends up magically bound to a ferocious Viking named Snorri Ver Snagason. Together they set out towards the frozen undead infested north to break the spell binding them and avenge Snorri’s people.

Lawrence nailed the characters in this book. Jalan is a cowardly, selfish, and immoral, but extremely sympathetic. He lives in a brutal violent world and the rationalization he gives for his actions all make sense. Why be a hero when hero’s get easily killed, a sword kills a hero just as fast as it does a farmer. Why put your life on the line when you can spend it drinking and whoring. His counterpart Snorri is a fanatical Viking, a fearless killing machine bound by honor. As a team Snorri and Jalan balance each other making their friendship and adventure a fantastic read.

What puts this book over the top of awesome for me was the fact that at it’s core Prince of Fools is a old school fantasy adventure, two men traveling on a quest, chased by necromancers, witches, bandits, through a brutal unforgiving world. It’s exactly the kind of story that got me into fantasy in the first place but put through the dirty lens of 21st century grimdark Lawrence style.

The Liars Key (Red Queens War #2) is scheduled for June 2nd of this year and I can’t wait. I would gamble the locket holding the only picture of my mother to get my hands on this book early.