Somehow "The Liveship Traders" just got better. Robin Hobb, the author of the "Farseer" trilogy and "Ship of Magic", has written a book that builds upon the story began in "Ship of Magic" and expands it far enough that already I have to consider "The Liveship Traders" be superior to the excellent "Farseer" trilogy. How did she do this? Robin Hobb simply turned the entire world of the Traders and Bingtown on its head.
When we last left our characters at the end of "Ship of Magic" we saw Kyle Havan, his son Wintrow, and the Liveship Vivacia taken captive by the pirate Captain Kennit. Kennit had been striving to capture a Liveship so that he could rid the waters of slave traders (Havan, on his first voyage on Vivacia after his father in law Trader Vestrit died, is trading in slaves). A Liveship is a sentient ship and one that is bound to her owners family, but if tamed would be the best ship on the water. Althea, the daughter of Trader Vestrit, is sailing back to Bingtown on another Liveship after having quite a hard time proving that she could be a sailor. She had expected to inherit Vivacia from her father and her brother in law, Kyle Havan, told her that the only way she would ever get the ship was to prove herself a sailor. Brashen Trell, the former first mate of the Vivacia and disinherited son of a Trader family, is sailing on a pirate ship himself as it is the only berth he could get. The Vestrit family is low on fortune and struggling to make the payments for the Vivacia and is counting on the money Kyle would bring back from the slave trade. Except that he hasn't returned yet.
This previous paragraph helps to bring the storyline up to the beginning of "Mad Ships", although it is a much abbreviated version of what happened in "Ship of Destiny" and robs the story of all of its craft and does not do justice to it. "Mad Ship" takes everything further and in a whole new direction. Brashen Trell returns to Bingtown with news that the Vivacia is captured. Althea also returns and learns of this and helps her family, with the assistance of Brashen and a mysterious woman named Amber to rescue the Vivacia. This is one third of the story. The next third of the story revolves around the Vestrit family, in particular the youngest daughter Malta. Malta is being courted by a young man named Reyn from the Rain Wilds Trader family who holds the lease of the Vivacia. Malta starts the novel wanting nothing more than to live a lavish lifestyle and to be introduced into society and feels held back by her family's impending poverty. But as the novel progresses Malta begins to learn what it is to rely on her family and her responsibility. She still has flights of fancy, but not to the extent as before and she becomes much more responsible. The final third of "Mad Ship" deals with Captain Kennit and Wintrow. Wintrow is the eldest (living) son of Kyle Havan and Keffira Vestrit and was studying to be a priest of Sa. But when Kyle's heir died he was called back unwilling to resume his place in the family and by the time of this novel Kyle took his own son a slave, branded his face, and was disgusted by Wintrow. But Wintrow is the only one with Vestrit blood aboard the Vivacia and this bond is vitally important...except that Wintrow's rejection of this life has caused the Vivacia to be able to be wooed by Captain Kennit into piracy. It is interesting that the character of Captain Kennit initially appeared to be one of the villains of the story is coming out a hero in "Mad Ship". Whether or not this holds is another question, but he is feeling like an anti-hero as he wants to improve the lives of those in the Pirate Isles and end slavery...but he is a pirate himself with all that entails.
To reveal too much of where "Mad Ship" takes the story would lessen the joy in discovering it. The pace of the story still moves at a gradual but insistent pace, but the story is rich in detail and Hobb builds this world with great skill. Even though it is part of the same world of the "Farseer" trilogy, "The Liveship Traders" takes place in a completely different part of the world and while the Six Duchies are referred to as is the Red Ships War it is only a reference to set this story on a chronology. Suffice it to say that what Robin Hobb reveals about the nature of Liveships and also about the serpents which keep getting a prologue and a few "interlude" chapters changes everything about how I view the story. Not to mention that Hobb has completely altered the lives of Bingtown and the characters irrevocably.
Midway through this novel I was very much wrapped up in the story Robin Hobb was telling and by the end I was in turn impressed, wanting to cheer (Althea), and shocked by the revelations. I knew Hobb was a good writer and have enjoyed the four previous books of hers I have read, but "Mad Ship" is a cut above those. I am truly excited to finish of the trilogy with "Ship of Magic" and as I said in the first paragraph I believe this series to be better than her excellent "Farseer" trilogy.