I’ve learned something very important about Robin Hobb. Her ability to render characters is unprecedented. Any discussion of characters in fantasy must include Fitz and the Fool from the Farseer books and the characters from this book are no exception.
The Bingtown trader families, for generations, have traded up the Rainwild River. The only ships that can safely sail the acidic waters of the river are liveships, made from a special wizardwood. Wizardwood absorbs the lives and blood of those who live and die on its decks until it becomes quickened and animated and alive.
When Althea’s father dies his death quickens the family ship Vivacia. Althea, having been raised on her decks feels assured that the ship will be hers. When her older sister Keffria gets the ship from her father’s will and gives it to her Chalcedean husband, Kyle, Althea runs away, feeling betrayed and determined to find a way to get Vivacia back.
Meanwhile, Vivacia refuses to sail without a blood member of her family on board so Kyle forces his oldest son Wintrow to sail with him as he sets sail for Jamaillia to pick up a shipment of slaves.
During all of this the pirate Kennit has dreams of becoming King of all Pirates and of owning his own liveship.
The way these characters, and many others, interact with their world is fantastic and terrifying to behold. Robin Hobb is a master at giving her characters believable motivations and showing them following those motivations to the horrible conclusions that they ultimately lead to. Her characters are never immune to the terrible consequences of their own hubris.
Althea is proud and brash and selfish in many ways. She is probably justified in being offended at being cut out of her father’s will. However, the argument her sister gives for not giving her the ship — that she always thinks of herself and doesn’t really know how to be in command — is also completely valid.
However, Keffria chooses to trust her husband to command and gives the ship to him. He immediately tries to treat Vivacia as any other ship, or perhaps as a new member of his crew. Then he also makes the fatal mistake of deciding to carry slaves in a ship that absorbs the emotions of the people that are on board. The result is every bit as disastrous as might be expected. He even forces his son, Wintrow to leave the monastery where he has spent the last three years and sail with him.
Wintrow, for his part, does not want to be there, which makes him try to get away — which is seen as betrayal by the ship and infuriates his father…
Keffria and her mother, Ronica, try to keep the family financially afloat during political and financial turmoil back home.
Then there are the Rainwild families and their strange and magical devices, Keffria’s oldest daughter and her manipulations of her mother and grandmother, Paragon the abandoned liveship that is beached near Bingtown because he apparently killed his former crew and is now insane and bitter and blind. There is also Amber, the strange shop owner that makes wooden trinkets in Bingtown. Her description sounds like she is one of the same race as the Fool in the Farseer trilogy which makes her even more intriguing.
There are also other Bingtown families, traders, pirates, citizens, harlots, sailors, liveships, slavers, slaves, rulers, friends and enemies.
What makes this book seem so real is the number of characters who, every one of them, feels like a whole and complete human being. No matter how minor the role they play.
The story is also fascinating and the world that Hobb has created, an extension of the one in the Farseer trilogy, is full of grand mystery and wonderful fantastical things.
This is a world of low magic. There are ships that become animated and alive. There are sentient sea monsters and magical trinkets that are mostly used for jewelry.
I loved it. It kept me enthralled throughout and I definitely recommend it. I will be reading more of these.