Saturday, September 25, 2010

Re-Read Review and Commentary: "Ship of Destiny," by Robin Hobb

*warning: Mad Ship and Ship of Magic spoilers ahead*

The Principal Cast:

Althea Vestrit: Now on board the Paragon, sailing onward to rescue Vivacia from Kennit's clutches.

Malta Haven: Survived both an earthquake and being magically inundated with memories of a long-ago past - only to end up babysitting a spoiled king in order to ensure her own survival.

Reyn Khuprus: Having lost the woman of his dreams to an earthquake, he's now expected to kowtow to the haughty demands of a newly-hatched dragon - the same reptile he believes let Malta die.

Kennit: Thanks to his luck, his crew members aren't just convinced of his awesomeness, but now believe he has magical powers. Can he make his luck hold, or will it leave him high and dry?

Wintrow Haven: After nearly dying trying to rescue a sea serpent from captivity, he discovers and unintentionally reveals the gruesome truth about Vivacia's heritage.

The Secondary Cast:

Bolt: Vivacia's dragon half. Not a lizard you want to mess with.

Paragon: Emo ship's got a past, y'all.

Selden Haven: After a close encounter with the dragon Tintaglia, Malta's baby brother becomes an avid dragon fanboy.

Serilla: The Satrap's brutalized Companion, who hopes to use the Satrap's disappearance in order to gain power for herself in Bingtown.

Brashen Trell: Still hot. Now drug-free. Pretty good captain. Totes in love with Althea.

Magnadon Satrap Cosgo: The spoiled, pampered, and drug-addicted ruler of Jamaillia who's the unwitting lynchpin in a massive powergrab conspiracy involving three nations.

Ronica Vestrit: Refusing to flee Bingtown during the riots, she hopes to bring Bingtown together again and clear her family's name of rumours of treachery.

She Who Remembers: A serpent blessed with her race's communal memories and freed from captivity by Wintrow, she hopes to find other serpents and lead them to where they may become dragons.

Tintaglia: A newly-hatched dragon. Desperate to repopulate her race by any means necessary, even if it means dealing with emo humans.

Fantasy Convention Checklist

1 Man-Crush Taken to an Extremely Disturbing Level

Several Serpent Fights

1 Rape

1 Spoiled Brat

1 Magical Allergic Reaction

Several Signed Contracts

1 Surprisingly Fashionable Cicatrix

1 Secret Baby

2 Tasty Walruses

1 Liveship Makeover

The Word: So here we are. The end of a truly fantastic trilogy, where all the pieces finally come together. You already know this is going to be a gushing fangirl review, so a lot of this is going to be more of a commentary.

The final book, Ship of Destiny, bases a lot of its narrative on politics - international politics, sexual politics, revolutionary politics.

In the last book, Mad Ship, some Traders discovered an international plot to murder the ruling Satrap during his visit to Bingtown, in order to blame Bingtown and give its sovereign nation Jamaillia and its skeezy ally Chalced an excuse to subjugate and plunder the trading city. While the Satrap was successfully spirited away, riots, looting and destruction destroyed Bingtown and crippled its power structure.

In this novel, we learn just how depleted the Vestrit fortunes are thanks to this predicament. While Keffria and her children fled into the Rain Wilds, Ronica - the family matriarch - remained in Bingtown as her house was looted, her possessions destroyed, and her family branded as traitors responsible for the death of the Satrap. Despite losing everything of material value, Ronica is a tough old broad, who quickly determines that if Bingtown wants to gain independence from Jamaillia and defend itself against Chalcedean attack, its peoples will have to unite - and that means all of its peoples.

Here is where all the great worldbuilding from the previous two books really takes off. Everything about how Bingtown used to be was based on tradition and status - the Vestrits, the Teniras, the Trells, and others took great pride in the political importance that came with being a Trader or a member of a Trader family, as opposed to being a vulgar New Trader, an immigrant, or a slave. Ronica ruffles more than a few feathers in this novel when she starts suggesting that if Bingtown wants to reign independently, all of its citizens will require an equal voice, not just the Trader ones.

Meanwhile, Malta learns the power of diplomacy firsthand when she rescues the overindulged teenage Satrap Cosgo and his bimbo Companion Kekki from an earthquake, only for all of them to be captured by evil Chalcedeans. Despite the fact that Cosgo is an unbearably spoiled and useless girly-man, Malta soon realizes that the only way to keep him, and therefore herself, alive, is to learn and navigate the political currents surrounding his capture. By this point it's (almost) hard to remember that, only a book or two ago, Malta was just as much of a brat as Cosgo.

And while this is going on, Althea and Brashen, who refitted the unstable liveship Paragon to use him to track down the captured liveship Vivacia, prove that even an island as small as a single ship has a chain of authority and command that can't be messed with. Brashen and Althea's growing attraction comes up against the complication that Brashen is the captain, Althea is only the second mate, and Lavoy, Brashen's first mate, might not be the most trustworthy knife in the drawer.

The difficulty that comes with writing this review is the fact that this only scratches the very surface of what happens in this novel. I haven't even mentioned the dragon Tintaglia's determination to revive her race, or how the liveship Vivacia changes once she discovers she's built from a dragon's stolen memories, or the secret horrific past between Kennit and Paragon. There's so much going on in this book, all of it important. In fact, this book, more than the others, makes some pretty dark, controversial, albeit intensely thought-provoking turns in its later chapters.

I've described the first two books for you, so you should already know that this series is Made of Awesome and that you should Go To Your Nearest Library or Bookstore and Read These Books RIGHT NOW, so maybe a more detailed synopsis here isn't really necessary.

However, is this novel just as gripping as the first two? Not quite. Pacing-wise, it does start to sag a bit in the middle, but after two unflagging novels I'm not going to begrudge a few slow bits here especially when the ending is so powerful and satisfying.

No, now that I've gone over the general review, I'd like to write a bit of a commentary.

I love Robin Hobb's Farseer Trilogy and her Tawny Man Trilogy. However, while each trilogy has strong and memorable female characters, they're both kind of sausagefests, narratively and thematically speaking. There's nothing wrong with that - especially since the protagonist of both series, Fitzchivalry Farseer, is one of my Favourite Fictional Characters of all time. I'm not kidding - he's up there with Anne Shirley and Jane Eyre.

The Second Son Trilogy is also a total man-party, but I can't group it together with the others because, um ... it sucks.

But the Liveship Trader Trilogy has a strong and pervasive feminine element that differentiates it from those other trilogies. Now, there are some pretty attention-consuming male characters - like the exquisitely written antihero Kennit, instigator of a Thousand Debates on the Nature of Good and Evil, Action and Intention. But throughout its three novels, the Liveship Trader Trilogy devotes a lot of time to the exploration of women.

And such a wide spectrum of women. We have the Traditional Fantasy Hoyden (or at least, we think we do) in the character of Althea. We have the elderly matriarch in Ronica. Keffria begins the series as a meek housewife content to live beneath the thumb of her dominating husband but ends the series as someone very different. With Malta we experience the pangs of both adolescence and destiny. With Etta, we have a whore who is immeasurably transformed and improved by her love for Kennit (whether it is reciprocated or not). We have Serilla, a Companion viciously raped at the Satrap's behest whose power-struggles are rooted in fear, and who must learn to overcome it in order to discover how much power she truly has. Vivacia and Tintagla explore femininity without the burden of humanity.

I mean, now that I list them all - look at them all. Women of all ages and walks of life, all of them integral to the story, all of them sympathetic and with their own strengths and weaknesses. But it's not only the characters. The worldbuilding is steeped in the question of how women should be treated. At one point, Ronica describes how the first generation of Traders in Bingtown required full female participation in all points, political and economical - a contrast to how Traders now see sheltering their daughters and denying them a practical education as a symbol of wealth and status.

Similarly, through Althea's point of view the novel explores the tenuous status of women on ships. Without her father's protection, she has to fight for every scrap of authority and respect on almost every vessel she sails on, and she can't rely on her fists the way her male counterparts do. The notion of liveships also explores the tradition of calling ships "she" - what's it like for an almost all-male crew to work a ship that is literally female, open to flirtation and seduction? Kennit, in particular, works this angle in Mad Ship by exploiting the jealousy between his human lover, Etta, and his liveship Vivacia.

It's also not an accident that when we learn about the series' Major Bad Guys - the nation of Chalced - the most prominently demonstrated aspect of their culture is their subjugation of women. The saying in their country is, "A woman without a man is no man's woman - and every man's woman." Meaning if you don't have a strong enough husband, father, or brother - you're rapebait. Every encounter our female characters have with the Chalcedeans demonstrates their hatred and fear of women, so let's just say it's Extra-Happy-Special when the Chalcedeans get their asses hand to them (or, if Tintaglia's fighting them, melted off).

I haven't read a whole lot of epic or high fantasy (i.e. fantasy that takes place in a pseudo-historical time period) that explores women as well as this series does, so this trilogy has a really special place in my heart. It's a delight and a relief that, even though books like C.L. Wilson's "romantic" Tairen Soul series can get away with female characters who are nearly all submissive victims or easily manipulated shrews, books like Ship of Magic, Mad Ship, and Ship of Destiny are still out there, waiting to be read.


  1. Vorkosigrrl8:34 AM

    Hi, AnimeJune!

    I'd really be interested in why you thought the Soldier Son trilogy sucked. It wasn't my favorite by any means, and I doubt I'll re-read it, but . . . suckdom? Her writing is always beautiful, at least, even if the story was sometimes boring. Maybe it would have been better as one stand-alone novel.

    I'll look forward to seeing what you think of the Dragon Keeper/Dragon Haven books.

    As for the Liveship trilogy . . . I can't say I warmed to it that much, for a couple of reasons. There just wasn't any one character that I connected to enough, who really got under my skin, for me to love the books. Also, there were so many moving parts that I kept feeling jerked around from one part to another. Not that they didn't all come together beautifully in the end.

  2. I just wanted to say that I was excited to hear that someone else who really, really enjoyed Robin Hobb's stuff (my personal fav. was the Liveship Traders series) agreed that The Soldier Son Trilogy sucked. Because it did. And I haven't found too many Hobb fans out there willing to admit to the fact.

    I can't really put it into words, but whatever was in Hobb's other fabulous novels was somehow missing in the Soldier Son books. Sigh.

  3. Hmm, I read these back in the day and remember loving them but I cannot for the life of me remember any solid detail. I might, I may have to go back and revisit these....and Fitz also.