It was with a great sense of sadness that I finished the third book of The Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb. Three books: Ship of Magic, Mad Ship, and Ship of Destiny, make up the trilogy that follows the struggles and adventures of the Vestrit family of traders, their liveship Vivacia and the characters that change their destinies. In addition to sea serpents, pirates, and politics there are ships that have memories and personalities and are a major part of driving the complex and compelling plot. There is more, but to reveal it all would be to spoil these great books for those who want to read them.
My sadness came in two flavors – the largest part of the sadness was finishing my journey in this world with characters that I had come to care so much about. While there is certainly an intricate and interesting story (actually multiple stories) that moves the books along – the fundamental focus of the books is the characters. Each character is well-rounded and fully developed. Our protagonists make mistakes and disappoint us – even as we cheer them on and hope for them to succeed. The antagonists develop and many learn from their mistakes and hardships and we often end up rooting for them despite ourselves or changing our minds about them entirely. As a reader, it is a rare experience to completely change one’s mind about a character – in these books it happens all the time. This not only happens in a positive direction, where characters who were initially unlikeable learn from their mistakes and became sympathetic, but also in the other, more uncommon direction. At one point towards the end of the third book, a character that we have come to care about through three books does something in his nature but completely unforgiveable. While what the character did was horrible, looking back at it I still experience a frisson of pleasure that the author was able to unpleasantly surprise me but still keep the integrity of the character.
There are numerous point of view characters and because each is so complex we find ourselves caring for them and wishing them well even when we realize that they have done bad things. At a few points I realized that I was supporting multiple sides in the same conflict and couldn’t decide who I would want to prevail. It is a thrilling and unsettling feeling to have as a reader – one doesn’t quite realize how simple our choices usually are in stories until we experience the rare treat of uncertainty and mixed allegiances.
These books are known from their romances, and the romances are good – some better than others. In general, the relationships between the couples develop over time, have their ups and downs, and when they come together it can be deeply satisfying. Like life, no relationship is simple, and the couples have their misunderstandings, disappointments, and differing goals. Some couples work through their issues and end up together, and in some couples one or both partners realize that they are better off going their separate ways. The complexity and variety of the relationships makes each love story compelling and each ending poignant – no matter how it turns out. The most rewarding stories are the most complex – and the resolutions to those stories are gratifying, even if it isn’t happily ever after.
There are several themes that run throughout the books. A main theme is to not look back with regrets, wishing for what might have been, but to start where you are and live life forward. As one character tells another who is mooning over a part of his life that is lost:
You can’t go back. . . . That part of your life is over. Set it aside as something that is finished. Complete or no, it is done with you. No being gets to decide what his life is ‘supposed to be.’ . . . Discover where you are now, and go on from there, making the best of things. Accept your life and you might survive it. If you hold back from it, insisting this is not your life, not where you are meant to be, life will pass you by. You may not die from such foolishness, but you might as well be dead for all the good your life will do you or anyone else.
This theme is reiterated over and over, with multiple characters and multiple regrets. Another theme that recurs is that learning and growth are not possible if you turn over control of your life to someone else or are overly protected. People start learning, growing, changing and becoming strong when they are not sheltered from the hard facts and difficult tasks. As far as themes go, these are pretty good ones, and it is interesting to watch the characters as they grow and change, but it might have been refreshing if there could have been more variation in the themes and outcomes. Seriously, must almost EVERY character learn from their mistakes? More intransigent stubborn fools would have been credible. There is also a strong theme of the importance of women being allowed to be strong and take responsibility for their own lives. The themes are strong but generally don’t interfere with the stories, although after three books read back-to-back the constant repetition of these themes starts to get old.
The smaller part of my sadness upon finishing also arose because of the complexity of the characters and plot. Given the intricacy and ambivalence of the books, at the end the resolutions seemed a little too perfect, the plotlines a little too tied up in neat packages, too many characters redeemed, the good rewarded and the wicked chastened. While satisfying in most conventional ways, the series could have been truly great, if less gratifying, if more threads had been left frayed at the end.
These books are tangentially related to the Farseer trilogy by the same author in that they take place in the same world. However, the relationship is distant – the tone of each series is different and although I read both series within a year, it was not until I was researching for this review that I fully realized that they were in the same world. The Liveship Traders series shows the hand of a more assured writer. I see that there are additional series set in the same world– time to clear the calendar for more reading pleasure!