This week I’ve been reading a just-published book by one of my favourite authors, Robin Hobb.  I’m not going to write about her new novel, `Blood of Dragons’, because it is the climax of a very long story which began seven books earlier. Yes, Hobb really puts the epic into Epic Fantasy. So today I’m recommending `Ship of Magic’, the first volume in  `The Liveship Traders’ Trilogy which leads on to `The Rain Wild Chronicles’ Quartet. `Ship of Magic’ is easy to get as a paperback (with a rather dull cover) or an ebook, or even as an audio download. This book alone is 834 pages long but to me her novels always seem too short.  Once I start reading, I become so absorbed in her invented world and the fates of her characters that I never want the story to end.

Hobb’s multi-stranded plots are extremely difficult to summarize but I’ll try… `Ship of Magic’ is centred on the Vestrits, a family of  Traders who live in Bingtown (Hobb isn’t one of Fantasy’s great name-coiners). The Bingtown Traders are facing hard times, due to wars interrupting commerce and heavy taxes and new settlers imposed by their overlord, the Satrap Cosgo. The Vestrits are fortunate enough to own a Liveship made from rare and costly `wizardwood’. These are the only ships which can safely sail the acid waters of the Rain Wild rivers to trade with the mysterious Rain Wild Traders who control the supply of precious goods excavated in the ruins of ancient cities where dragons and the dragon-like people known as Elderlings once lived together.

When Captain Vestrit dies on her deck, the Liveship Vivacia is `quickened’ and becomes a fully conscious being, able to communicate through the ship’s figurehead.  Captain Vestrit’s daughter, Althea, has spent years at sea and hoped to succeed her father as Captain but she is passed over in favour of her elder sister’s husband, Kyle. He is a Chalcedean who has no scruples about using the Vivacia to transport slaves, a dark trade despised by the Bingtowners. A furious Althea leaves to seek her fortune elsewhere and prove herself worthy to captain a Liveship. A Liveship must always have a family member aboard, so Kyle sends for his son, Wintrow. He has been training as a priest and doesn’t want to go to sea.  In Bingtown, Wintrow’s  flighty sister, Malta, begins a dangerous flirtation with a veiled Trader from the Rain Wilds. No-one knows exactly what these traders look like under their veils but it is rumoured that monstrous deformities are the price of living in the Rain Wilds. When Wintrow defies his father, Kyle treats his own son like a slave, but they are about to cross paths with the ruthless Captain Kennit, who is determined to capture a Liveship and become the first King of the Pirate Isles. Meanwhile a tangle of sea-serpents are desperately searching for the `One Who Remembers’ . It is Wintrow who may be destined to find her and set her free. As rebellion and war threaten Bingtown and all the Vestrits are plunged into danger, they gradually discover the terrible secret of what the Liveships are and what they were meant to be.

I first read `Ship of Magic’ during a far from  enjoyable Nile cruise and it was a great consolation to follow the adventures of a group of people who, thanks to pirates, slavers and poisonous sea-serpents, were having a far worse time afloat than I was.  Some people find Hobb’s books over-detailed and too slow-moving. Reading her stories is like really being there and that sometimes means being there for the boring bits of the characters’ lives as well as the exciting ones. If you are squeamish about lengthy descriptions of animals being butchered and skinned, you may want to skip some of the Althea chapters. Other readers dislike the way that the storyline in `The Liveship Traders’  Trilogy follows so many different characters. It can be frustrating when your favourite character disappears for a hundred pages or more but I feel it is worth the wait to discover how Hobb brings all the strands of her intricate plot together. Everything she does is on a big scale and this trilogy shows both individuals and whole societies going through seismic changes.

On the surface, `Ship of Magic’ has a fairly standard `medieval plus dragons’ setting, but this is a very American take on Epic Fantasy. Hobb reimagines great themes from American history, such as the struggles for political independence and against slavery. Her villains are often greedy aristocrats and many of her heroes and heroines are hard-working traders who would rather negotiate with their enemies than kill them. However, the pioneering Rain Wild Traders are guilty of exploiting indigenous species and the free capitalists of Bingtown have devised their own class-system in which the  Trader families look down on the more recent immigrants known as `the Tattooed’. So, the politics of  Hobb’s invented countries are not simplistic and the story often explores how compromises have to be made and attitudes changed in order to build a better future. If that makes The Liveship Traders’ Trilogy sound a bit worthy and dull, I promise you that these novels are  loaded with exciting action scenes and  intriguing mysteries in exotic settings.

Much of the drama comes from clashes within the Vestrit family and between people from different cultures and backgrounds.  Whether they are young or old, male or female, all Hobb’s main characters seem remarkably real. A number of the women in this series renounce privilege and dependency and learn to become strong and independent. Feisty Althea is a good example but, realistically, her ambitions come with a price.  Her nephew, Wintrow initially comes across as the over-sensitive weakling his father believes  him to be; then a twist of fate brings him suffering and the chance to become an unusual kind of hero.  The volatile Captain Kennit is far scarier than anything in the `Pirates of the Caribbean’ films but, because the reader gets to share his dark secrets and inner torments, he is more than a stereotypical villain. Among the non-human characters, the most vivid is Paragon, a Liveship who has gone mad and is reputed to drown anyone who tries to sail in him.

Nearly all Hobb’s characters are confronted with dramatic alterations  in their lives. They lose wealth, status, security or even their liberty. Some crumble under the strain; others adjust, accepting that change and growth are essential to life. Many of Hobb’s heroines and heroes have astonishing story arcs, which I can’t say too much about without spoiling the plot. For example, reluctant sailor Wintrow ends up in the last job you would predict for him and with the most surprising partner, while spoiled brat Malta finds true love and, once her fate is entwined with the dragon Tintaglia, becomes an extraordinary… No, you’ll just have to read the whole story.

One final reason for trying `Ship of Magic’ is that, in my opinion, no living writer does dragons better than Hobb.  At the start of `The Liveship Traders’ Trilogy, dragons appear to be extinct but Hobb has created a bizarre life-cycle for her dragons and disastrous ways for other beings to interfere with it. There are dragons in `Ship of Magic’ but you have to look hard for them. When an adult dragon who carries the memories of her race is finally introduced, she is physically stunning but also convincingly alien in her thoughts and emotions. There are a lot of Fantasy series in which human riders chum up with loveable dragons. Such stories are often fun to read as they allow us to project human emotions onto animals.  In contrast, Hobb’s imperious and magnificent dragons are always dangerous and never seem remotely human. They, like the forces of nature, deserve to be respected on their own terms. Interacting with these dragons makes people question the rules of human society and realize just how how petty the differences between human cultures are. If you want to feel part of something bigger than yourself, reading `Ship of Magic’ could be a good place to start. Until next week…