The Mad Ship (1999): Robin Hobb


The Liveship Traders Trilogy: Book II 

The second volume of The Liveship Traders trilogy kicks off with a bloody amateur amputation on board ship; and the drama barely lets up until the climax 800 pages later. Along the way, Hobb eventually allows us to see the Rain Wild Traders at first hand and begins to reveal their secrets. These offer some answers to questions arising from the first book, about serpents and dragons and wizardwood; and these answers in turn give rise to questions of their own.

The dramatic force of the novel seems to come from the juxtaposition between freedom and imprisonment, and how the characters deal with this. There are many different forms of imprisonment, of course. One can be trapped just as easily by the frivolities of a petty, unfulfilling life, as by being locked in a cabin on a ship; and being limited by one’s own fear of the unknown is just as effective as the physical constraints of a wooden chrysalis. Then there are questions about how freedom can be reconciled with being the subject of a higher power – whether that’s Kennit, as king of the pirate isles, or the Satrap of Jamaillia whose taxes are throttling Bingtown’s Trader families. Where does the boundary between liberation and rebellion lie? Is there really such a boundary at all, except in the minds of those doing the oppressing? And all the time, as the characters wrestle with these human problems, there is something greater, more ancient and much more powerful coming to awareness around them, finding its way into their dreams and demanding a form of release that will have consequences more radical than anyone can imagine.

I think there is in the heart of man a place made for wonder. It sleeps inside, awaiting fulfilment. All one’s life, one gathers treasures to fill it. Sometimes they are tiny glistening jewels: a flower blooming in the shelter of a fallen tree, the arch of a small child’s brow combined with the curve of her cheek. Sometimes, however, a trove falls into your hands all at once… Such were the dragons on the wing.

Rather than do the usual summary of the book, I wanted to focus on some of the things that particularly struck me in this instalment. The middle section of a trilogy seems to be a good place to take a step back and look at various unfurling themes. For example, I’ve noticed an increasing number of scenes and motifs which echo elements of The Farseer, very subtly and playfully, but enough to underscore the fact that both trilogies (and The Tawny Man) come from the same historical roots and are driven by the same ancient forces. The sigil on the door of the Elderling city, beneath the Rain Wild settlement of Trehaug, is a crowned rooster, which the Khuprus family have adopted as their own crest. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the rooster crown in Assassin’s Quest and wondered if it was simply a fortuitous coincidence, or whether (more likely) there was some deeper significance linking the two that I haven’t quite managed to fathom yet.

Then, we have a scene in which one character plunges after another into death, to knit the pieces of his being back together and bring him back to life (I avoid giving the names in an attempt not to be too spoilery) – an idea which again is all too familiar from Assassin’s Quest. And then there’s the question of why Amber’s bare hands might have left the distinctive mark of a single silvered fingerprint on the back of Malta’s neck, an event that I really don’t remember from reading the books first time round. That suggests that either I wasn’t concentrating first time, or I hadn’t yet made the connection that allowed me to understand the significance of the event. More on this in the next book (I’m restraining myself).

Characters have often commented, both in this book and the last, that Six Duchies women enjoy a greater degree of equality than Bingtown women; but in fact I feel that the female characters in The Liveship Traders are much more vivid and rounded than those in The Farseer. To some extent I think that’s the result of having a third-person narrative, which allows us to learn more about a wider range of characters, rather than being restricted to the protagonist’s opinions on those around him. By the end of this book, Althea, Malta, Keffria and Ronica have all developed into strong people who have a firm sense of their own agency and duty. For me, the only woman in The Farseer who approached the same level of richness was Kettricken. And, in The Liveship Traders, these central characters are complemented by secondary figures such as Jani Khuprus, Etta and even the liveships Vivacia and Ophelia. It gives the series a balance between male and female characters that is very rare in fantasy.

Of course, the characters are not always wise or sympathetic or admirable: for at least the first half of the book Malta continued to exasperate me wildly. It’s as though Hobb consciously changed her writing style during these scenes to flatter Malta’s romantic notions, and during the scene with Cerwin Trell in the gazebo, it felt as if the characters had somehow strayed in from a Georgette Heyer novel. For all that, Malta’s enlightenment – when it does come – is as satisfying as the redemption of Scarlett O’Hara at the end of Gone with the Wind. I’d completely forgotten the important role that Malta comes to play at the end of this book and so found those sections particularly interesting.

The new information about liveships and serpents and dragons made me wonder how these elements fit in with the Skill and the Wit described in The Farseer books. The bonding between a liveship and a family member appears to be very similar to Wit-bonding, but it doesn’t seem to make the human more susceptible to the thoughts of animals, and we’re frequently told that blood is the conduit for the shared memories. On the other hand there’s evidently quite a strong element of the Skill involved in the dragon’s ability to control thought and enter dreams, and Wintrow can abandon himself on the flood of Vivacia’s memories with the ease of someone slipping into a Skill dream. When Malta has visions of the ancient Elderling city in its heyday, full of people and music and clamour, that’s virtually identical to the experience Fitz has when he explores the ruined city in the Mountain Kingdom. And so on.

It’s interesting, though, that Hobb presents us in The Mad Ship with two substances capable of absorbing memories: wizardwood, which is connected with the real dragons; and the black stone we’d already seen in The Farseer, which appears to be a kind of substitute wizardwood discovered by the Elderlings, and used to create ‘simulacra’ of dragons which could be brought to life with human memories – as we saw in Verity’s case. None of this is vital to following the plot, of course, but I think it’s wonderful when an author takes the time to create so thorough a backstory for their world.

There are moments in The Mad Ship, I won’t deny it, where things teeter on the edge between grand and overblown. There is much more talk of destiny and prophecy in this trilogy than in The Farseer, and the magical elements of the story are firmly at centre stage. On a previous occasion, I’ve admitted that I always prefer a ‘less is more’ approach to magic and this is part of the reason why I prefer the grittier, more naturalistic, more austere Farseer novels. Nevertheless, Hobb is one of the few authors who can carry off talking serpents, living figureheads and dragons with aplomb. Moreover, she ensures that they don’t overshadow the absorbing human dramas going on around them. What I said about Ship of Magic remains true for The Mad Ship: with this reread, I’m enjoying The Liveship Traders much more than I did first time round; and I can’t wait to carry on to the concluding novel, of which I remember virtually nothing. If you’ve read and enjoyed Assassin’s Apprentice, or any of the other Farseer books, you really should move on to this trilogy, if only to complete the overriding story arc that will eventually conclude in The Tawny Man trilogy.

Buy the book

And, to finish, another selection of covers. I’ve been thoroughly disappointed by how sane and appropriate the covers are for this trilogy. It’s much more fun when there are some completely bizarre designs to celebrate…


2 thoughts on “The Mad Ship (1999): Robin Hobb

  1. Janet says:

    I'm currently re-reading this series, utterly gripped all over again, and I, too, noticed the mark on Malta's neck for the first time. As well as this, from Amber: “As a youth, I was a bad sailor.” I won't say any more for fear of spoilers, but given the question that everyone asks by the end of the Farseer series, I found that very significant. Can't believe it was just a moment's imprecision on Ms Hobb's part.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s