“Ship of Magic” is the first book of Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders trilogy. It is set in the same world as her previous trilogy: The Farseer, but deals with another aspect of the world and this first book, at least, is almost completely separate with only occasional mentions of a “war up north” which was a major plot point of the Farseer. “Ship of Magic”, unlike the Farseer, is told in the third person point of view rather than the first person of FizChivalry (The Farseer Trilogy). The focus here is on multiple characters and multiple storylines which are initially separate but start to slowly come together.
Althea Vestrit is the daughter of Captain Vestrit, owner of the Liveship Vivacia. A Liveship is not merely made of wood and sailed by the talent of the crew, but it is a ship that is actually alive, it has personality and can think and is so prized that Trader families would put their families generations into debt because of how valued and important these ships are to Bingtown and to the Traders. The Liveships are faster and sail better than any other ship on the water. When her father dies, and he is near death, Althea expects to inherit Vivacia and eventually learn to be her captain. But when he does die the ship is left to the husband of her sister, and Kyle Haven thinks Althea is no proper lady and has no place on a ship. After a very big argument and fight with her family, and with Kyle, Althea leaves Bingtown with the intent to eventually working her way back to be able to own Vivacia in her own right.
There is also a pirate captain, Kennit, who seeks to be ruler of the pirates and also to capture a liveship of his own. At least a third of “Ship of Magic” is about Kennit and his adventures and piracy and his dreams of a better, different life. The final third of the book is focuses on Kyle Haven’s son, Wintrow. Wintrow is Kyle’s only son, but was promised to be a priest of Sa. But when Kyle finally gains control of Vivacia, he also commands Wintrow to join him as a sailor with the intent the Wintrow become a man and eventually take over Vivacia. But Wintrow is not the son that Kyle wants him to be, nor is he the man that Kyle considers a man.
“Ship of Magic” is a slow moving novel with more focus on the characters and their development than about swiftly moving a plot along. By the end of this novel there is quite a bit of plot development, but with the pacing and the characterization it is almost a wonder that Hobb moved the story along at all. It is almost as if the reader were a ship floating along in the ocean of the novel. But while the pacing may be an issue for some readers, if the reader is familiar with her earlier work, this will not be a surprise and Robin Hobb does such a good job of slowly pulling the reader into her world that by the end we are looking for the next book in the series.
Since this book is not directly related to the Farseer Trilogy there is no problem with reading this book first, but I do recommend reading the books in publication order (starting with Assassin’s Apprentice). Either way, this is a different sort of a fantasy novel, but one which I find to be a treat. There is much magic here, but it is in the storytelling rather than in a wizard waving a wand.