*Warning: Ship of Magic Spoilers Ahead*
The Principal Cast:
Althea Vestrit: Still determined to claim The Vivacia, her family liveship, as her own - only now she has to rescue it from pirates. Also, to her surprise, she finds herself the lynchpin of a love triangle.
Wintrow Vestrit: He gambles with fate to save his life and that of his father when he develops a shaky alliance with Captain Kennit. Develops crush on Kennit's ho, Etta.
Captain Kennit: Still recovering from failing to keep his arms and legs in the boat at all times, he's nevertheless determined to woo Vivacia to his cause - even if it means manipulating the jealousy between Vivacia and his ho-for-show Etta.
Vivacia: The sentient liveship of the Vestrit family, she's swiftly becoming a rabid Kennit fangirl.
Malta Vestrit: Slutty, selfish, manipulative, and possibly evil thirteen-year-old niece of Althea who struggles with her family's declining fortunes and her unwitting betrothal to Rain Wild Trader Reyn.
The Supporting Cast:
Brashen Trell: Former shipmate of Althea who's totally in love with her - but is he willing to clean up his act for her?
Reyn Khuprus: A mysterious member of a wealthy Rain Wild Trader family who's in love with Malta (Heaven knows why) - marrying him could set her up for life, but how much does she really know about him?
Etta: Kennit's GF, a former whore with a sharp tongue who dotes on Kennit but develops a fondness for Wintrow.
Grag Tenira: First mate and heir of the liveship Ophelia, he thinks Althea is the bee's knees and he's from a wealthy, upstanding Trader family to boot. What's not to like?
Paragon: A crazed liveship, abandoned by his Trader family, he only wants to be left alone - but he just might be the only one capable of rescuing Vivacia from pirates.
Maulkin, Sessurea, Shreever: Part of a tangle of sea serpents who are trying to discover why their kind are losing their memories, and what their ultimate destiny is supposed to be.
Fantasy Convention Checklist:
1 Pissy Charm Bracelet
Several Psychic Connections
1 Love Triangle
1 Unfortunate Knife Fight
1 Bad Dad
2 Romantically Lacklustre Rivals
1 Angry Dragon
The Word: In this sequel to Ship of Magic, to quote Martin Lawrence: "Shit just got real." At the end of the last book, thanks to Captain Kennit and a slave uprising, the sentient liveship Vivacia ended up in the hands of pirates and most of her crew was killed. However, Kennit is dying, thanks to a poisoned leg that was gnawed off by a sea serpent. In a bid to save his father's life, Wintrow offers to heal Kennit with his priest training. However, by the end of it, pirate, boy, and ship wind up enmeshed in a bond none of them expected, revealing that Kennit's and Wintrow's pasts aren't so different.
Meanwhile, back in Bingtown, Wintrow's sister Malta learns about real life the hard way. Fed up with her family's poverty and horrible old-fashionedness, she longs for when her dashing father will return, replenish the Vestrit finances, and punish her cruel mother and grandmother for not treating her like the beautiful, pampered princess she is. When the news of Vivacia's capture reaches Bingtown, the Vestrit family is devastated. The idea that Malta's father might never come back, that her family might never regain their high status and luxury, forces her to re-examine her priorities with painful results.
Althea, having returned from a successful voyage aboard the liveship Ophelia, decides to mend fences with her family when she hears the news. She still wants to claim Vivacia as her own, especially now that she finally has the proof she needs to get her back, but she realizes that a united front is the best chance the Vestrits have of getting Trader support to rescue their ship.
In the midst of all this crisis, Brashen Trell, onetime friend and lover of Althea, comes up with a possible plan. It's unorthodox, it's dangerous, and it involves the despised, maddened lifeship Paragon, but it just might work. However, if he wants to be taken seriously (particularly by Althea, for whom he still carries a ginormous flaming torch), that'll mean taking responsibility, thinking ahead, and dealing with his drug addiction.
If the last book was about how the characters learn they have a lot of growing up to do, Mad Ship is about their attempts to do so - even if not all of them have the right idea. For the first half of the book, Malta is just about intolerably evil. She is outright manipulative, hungry for attention and power, and perfectly willing to play one suitor against another if it means making her friends jealous or getting more presents.
And she's thirteen. At the start of the book, her idea of gaining respect and growing up is to act like an adult without really understanding what it means to be one. There's an hilarious and painful scene where she very overtly propositions Brashen (who's 25), who reacts with as much horror and disgust as one would expect. But once the bright bubble-dream of her father's return bursts and she realizes there's no miracle waiting in the wings to set everything to rights, Malta learns just how much her petty scheming is worth in the long run.
As for Althea, the erstwhile black sheep of the Vestrit family finally tries to fit in society and act like a proper Trader daughter, even going so far as to accept the advances of Grag Tenira, a thoughtful, kind and upstanding Trader son. A great deal of the novel deals with her struggles within a more traditional role, and her self-exploration as to why a conventional lifestyle fails to appeal to her. Her internal conflict is externalized in her relationships with Grag and Brashen. Grag is everything a woman could want in a husband - wealthy, considerate, amusing. The only problem is that Althea doesn't want Grag enough to consent to be a wife, to organize the household and raise babies while Grag gallivants at sea. Similarly, she shouldn't still be this attracted to Brashen after a single one-night stand - especially considering his tawdry past and reckless use of cindin (an addictive narcotic). However, Brashen pushes her buttons and Grag does not - so what does that say about her?
As well, Robin Hobb also reveals more about the mysterious origins of wizardwood, the silvery material zealously guarded by Rain Wild Traders who fashion it into liveships for outrageous sums. Malta's Rain Wild suitor Reyn gains firsthand knowledge of what, exactly, wizardwood is but finds few people willing to believe him. And (at least to this reader), the revelation is both startling and original.
Those of you worried about Middle-Book-Itis need not fear - it isn't so much a second book as a flawless continuation of the first. It's hard to read them both and think of them as separate books rather than one continuous narrative divided into two books, with some characters fading into the background as newer ones (like Malta and Reyn) gain precedence. As you can probably guess from my review, it's easier to separate these two books by theme than by narrative. As it is, Mad Ship is a mad-good continuation of a great series.