Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb

After finishing Robin Hobb’s wonderful Farseer trilogy in November 2014 I knew I wanted to read more of her books. I was desperate to find out what would happen next to the Farseer characters so it was tempting to go straight to her Tawny Man trilogy, but after looking at some recommended reading orders, I decided it would be better to read her other series, The Liveship Traders, first. If none of this means anything to you because you’re unfamiliar with Robin Hobb, rest assured that reading Ship of Magic does not require any knowledge of previous Hobb novels and I’ve avoided spoiling them in the rest of this post!

Ship of Magic is set in the same world as the Farseer books, but the action this time centres around Bingtown, a coastal community of traders and merchants governed by the highly respected Bingtown Trader families, descendants of the original settlers of those shores who came from the mysterious Rain Wilds. The Bingtown Traders have maintained their connections with those who remained in the Rain Wilds and as part of this alliance the Rain Wild Traders provide the Bingtown Traders with the means to build a liveship – a debt so large that it can take generations to be paid off. Why is a liveship so important? Well, it is built from wizardwood – a magical wood with a mind of its own – and is the only type of vessel which can travel safely up the hazardous Rain Wild River to trade in the magnificent, enchanted goods that are available there.

At the beginning of the novel, the Vestrit family’s liveship, the Vivacia, is about to ‘quicken’ – the term given to the process by which a wizardwood ship comes to life after three generations of the family have died on board. Althea Vestrit is devastated by her father’s death, but excited at the thought of taking over the captaincy of the ship. After all, she has spent her childhood accompanying her father on his voyages and, as a blood-member of the family, she is the one who could be expected to share a close bond with the newly quickened Vivacia. She is bitterly disappointed, then, when it emerges that her father has actually left the ship to Kyle Haven, her elder sister’s husband, a man who has no understanding of what is involved in commanding a liveship. Furious and heartbroken, Althea decides to leave home and go out into the world where she can prove herself as a sailor and one day regain control of the Vivacia.

The edition of Ship of Magic I read is over 800 pages long, so you won’t be surprised to hear that there is a lot more to the plot than I have talked about so far. I don’t want to go into too much detail here, but I would like to briefly mention some of the other storylines and characters. First there’s Wintrow, Kyle’s son, who is taken from the monastery where he was studying to be a priest and not at all happy about being forced to serve with his father on board the Vivacia. Then there’s Wintrow’s sister Malta, left at home with her mother and grandmother. Malta longs for excitement in her life – to be allowed to go to balls, to wear grown-up dresses and be courted by young men – and she can’t understand why her family are so determined to stop her. Finally, there’s Kennit, a pirate captain who dreams of becoming a pirate king and is sailing up and down the coast waiting for the chance to capture a liveship of his own.

I really enjoyed this book; although I certainly hadn’t intended to wait three years before reading it, I’m glad I didn’t pick it up immediately after finishing the last Farseer book when I would undoubtedly have just wanted more of the same story. There were times when I felt there was a little bit too much going on in this novel and too many characters to get to know – but for the most part, I thought they were worth knowing! The only characters I actively disliked were Kyle, Malta and one of Kyle’s crew members, Torg. The rest were interesting, nuanced and well written. I was particularly intrigued by Kennit, who in many ways is one of the villains of the book, but who does seem to have a conscience in the form of a wizardwood charm worn on his wrist. I’m also hoping to learn more about the wood-carver Amber and the abandoned liveship Paragon in the next book.

The title of that next novel is The Mad Ship and I have included it on my 20 Books of Summer list, so expect to hear all about it soon!

Assassin’s Quest by Robin Hobb

Assassins Quest I’ve finished the Farseer Trilogy and now I feel bereft! After the cliffhanger ending of the previous book, Royal Assassin, I immediately moved on to the final instalment but now I wish I’d waited a while so that the whole experience wouldn’t have been over so quickly. This particular book wasn’t my favourite of the three – I had a few minor problems with this book that prevented me from enjoying it as much as the first two – but I can’t express how much I loved this trilogy as a whole.

It is almost impossible to discuss the final book of three without giving away things that happened in the previous two, so be aware that there will be spoilers throughout the rest of this post! If you’re new to Robin Hobb it wouldn’t be a good idea to start with this book anyway – Assassin’s Apprentice is where you need to begin.

Assassin’s Quest is slightly different from the first two Farseer novels because, while those two were centred around Buckkeep and its inhabitants, in this third book Fitz is on a mission that will take him across the Six Duchies and beyond. It feels more like a traditional fantasy adventure novel – and in fact, it does contain much stronger fantasy elements than the previous books. We learn more about the Wit and the Skill – and both of these types of magic are used in ways I hadn’t realised was possible – and we even meet some dragons (which isn’t surprising, as there’s one pictured on the book cover). While I thought the strengthening of the fantasy elements felt like a natural development as Fitz ventures further into the Realm of the Elderlings, I did prefer the more subtle fantasy atmosphere of Assassin’s Apprentice and Royal Assassin.

This novel picks up the story where Royal Assassin ended, with Fitz believed to have died at the hands of King Regal and his coterie. We, however, know that he has only left his body temporarily to join his wolf, Nighteyes, with whom he is Wit-bound. After a slow start in which Fitz returns to human form and has to come to terms with no longer being a wolf, he finally sets out on his quest. His aim is to hunt down Regal and kill him, but this proves to be more difficult than he expected and eventually he becomes aware that he has allowed himself to be distracted from what should have been his real purpose: finding Verity, his beloved uncle and rightful King of the Six Duchies.

Verity left Buckkeep halfway through the previous novel to go in search of the legendary Elderlings in the hope that they would help him to defeat the Red Ship Raiders. He has never been seen since, but Fitz is sure he’s still alive – he can sense Verity’s presence with his Skill and hear his command (“Come to me!”) in his mind. This certainty that his King is waiting for him is what keeps Fitz focused on his task, even when he wants nothing more than to return to Buck and look for Molly, the woman he loves, now only visible to him in Skill dreams.

As Fitz and Nighteyes travel across all of the Six Duchies and on into the Mountain Kingdom they are joined by some old friends, as well as making new ones such as Starling, a minstrel, and Kettle, an old woman who clearly knows a lot more about the Skill than she wants to admit to. That, by the way, was one of the little things that annoyed me about the book. It seemed that on a mission where everybody needed to pull together, every one of the party was keeping secrets from the others, making cryptic comments when a simple explanation could have saved so much trouble. Speaking of secrets and cryptic comments, we do learn quite a lot about the Fool in this book. However, the revelations that are made about the Fool just seem to raise more questions than they answer!

Unlike the first two books which I loved from the beginning, it took me a while to really get into Assassin’s Quest; the opening section with Fitz learning to be human again seemed to go on forever. After the journey got underway, I was quickly drawn into the story once again and became so absorbed in Fitz’s world I was dreading reaching the end of the book – especially as I was sure it wouldn’t end happily. This is a big, thick book (with over 800 pages in the edition I read) and there were a few points where I thought the story started to drag. I didn’t mind persevering through the slower parts, though, because there are some truly fantastic moments in this book, my favourites being the breathtaking scenes set inside Regal’s palace at Tradeford.

So, do Fitz and his friends find Verity and if so, has he succeeded in enlisting the help of the Elderlings? Will Fitz have another chance to kill Regal? Despite my spoiler warnings, I’m not going to answer those questions here. I will just say that I found the ending (the final two or three chapters, really) every bit as sad as I’d expected it to be, and yes, I cried. I’m not always a fan of happy, fairytale endings but after all the misery Fitz and the other characters had gone through in this trilogy I think I would have liked one here! As for the way everything was wrapped up in the last few pages in the style of an epilogue, I didn’t find that very satisfying either. I realise, though, that we’ll meet Fitz again later in the Tawny Man Trilogy and I’m looking forward to reading those books – but not until I’ve read the Liveship Traders first!

Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb

Royal Assassin The way I read has changed since I started blogging. I can no longer seem to just read one book at a time and often find myself with four or five on the go at once. Sometimes, though, there comes a point where one book becomes so absorbing that I have to drop everything else and concentrate solely on that book right to the end. That’s what happened with Royal Assassin; other books had to be pushed aside while I became immersed in the world of the Six Duchies.

Royal Assassin is the second of The Farseer Trilogy and continues the story begun in Assassin’s Apprentice. If you haven’t read the first book yet, be aware that spoilers may follow!

At the beginning of the novel, FitzChivalry Farseer has survived his mission in the Mountain Kingdom and is ready to return home. On arriving at Buckkeep, however, Fitz is confronted with a new set of problems. King Shrewd is suffering from a mysterious illness and is losing control of his kingdom, while his son, King-in-Waiting Verity, is preoccupied with defending the coastal Duchies from the persistent attacks of the Red Ship Raiders. Currently, Verity’s only weapon against the Raiders is the Skill – a form of magic known to only a select few within the keep – but it is having little effect. When he hears tales of the mythical Elderlings who once helped a previous king tackle the threat of the Raiders, Verity sets off to find them – a journey that will take him far away from Buckkeep.

It is left to Fitz, then, to try to protect Buckkeep and its inhabitants from the plots of Prince Regal who, with his elder brother gone and his father ill, has set his sights on taking the throne for himself. Fitz is not entirely alone and can rely on the help of old friends – Burrich the Stablemaster, Chade, his instructor in the arts of assassination, and his father’s widow, Patience – as well as new ones such as Verity’s Queen-in-Waiting, Kettricken, but with Regal intent on removing anyone who gets in the way of his ambitions, it’s a difficult and dangerous time for Fitz and his allies. He is able to find comfort in his reunion with Molly, the woman he loves, and also in a special bond with a wolf called Nighteyes, but even these relationships are not without their complications…

I loved Assassin’s Apprentice when I read it a couple of months ago and I’m pleased to say that I found this book just as good as the first – possibly even better. I can only think of two things that bothered me slightly about this book. First, I couldn’t quite believe that Verity would abandon Buckkeep at such a crucial moment. I understand why his leaving was necessary for the plot; it just seemed a bit unconvincing to me. Also, I find Regal a disappointingly one-dimensional villain. Unless things are going to change in the third book, he seems to have absolutely no good qualities or nuances to his character – though maybe this is only noticeable because most of the others are so interesting and well developed. I realise that I still haven’t mentioned one of the most intriguing characters in the book: the Fool. Sometimes he seems so clever and wise, at other times so vulnerable and childlike. I think I said in my review of Assassin’s Apprentice that I wanted to know more about the Fool; well, we do learn a little bit more, but he is still a character surrounded by mystery.

I find the inhabitants of Buckkeep and the relationships between them so interesting that the Red Ship Raiders and Forging storyline becomes secondary to me. I thought the Skilling and Wit passages in this book were particularly well written; sometimes novels with plots that rely on telepathic communications can seem unrealistic, but here I had no problem believing in Fitz’s conversations with Nighteyes, to give one example. In the previous novel I didn’t fully understand the implications of The Wit and the problems it could cause, but now things are a bit clearer. The role it plays in the story is fascinating, especially towards the end!

The first two books in this trilogy have been among the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year. The third one, Assassin’s Quest, is on my library pile and I’ll have to start it soon as it looks enormous!

Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb

Assassin's Apprentice Yet again I have book blogging to thank for helping me to discover an author who I think is going to become a favourite. Not being a big reader of fantasy, I would probably never have thought of reading Robin Hobb until I noticed how enthusiastic bloggers such as Leander and Alex were about her work. Assassin’s Apprentice, the first book of The Farseer Trilogy seemed the logical place to start, and what a great book it turned out to be!

Assassin’s Apprentice is set in the Kingdom of the Six Duchies, a fictional world that in some ways resembles Europe during the medieval period. Our narrator is Fitz, the illegitimate son of Prince Chivalry, the heir to the throne. Fitz is only six years old when he comes to court for the first time, having been handed over by his maternal grandfather. Chivalry himself considers the arrival of his bastard son such a disgrace that he retires from court and removes himself from the line of succession before he and Fitz even have a chance to meet. As the years go by, Fitz tries to settle into his new life at Buckkeep, the home of the royal family (the Farseers), but he finds that while there are some people who show concern for his welfare – his uncle, Prince Verity, for example, and Chivalry’s loyal stableman, Burrich, who cares for him during his early years – there are others who have no intention of making him feel welcome, such as Prince Regal, the younger half-brother of Chivalry and Verity (in Fitz’s world, the nobility have names that reflect their personal qualities).

While Fitz struggles to find a place for himself at Buckkeep, his grandfather, King Shrewd, decides to gain the boy’s loyalty and assure himself that Fitz will be working for the royal house rather than against it. And so Fitz begins to receive private lessons from the mysterious assassin, Chade, who will train him in the art of killing for the king. The adventures Fitz has over the years that follow are best left for readers to discover for themselves, so I won’t say any more about the plot here, except to say that I thought it was wonderful!

The world Robin Hobb describes in Assassin’s Apprentice is not greatly different from our own – or as our own world used to be a few hundred years ago. That is, there are no elves, wizards, goblins or other magical beings of the sort you find in other fantasy novels. However, there are a small number of magical abilities which some of our characters possess: the Wit – a special affinity between humans and animals; the Skill – the power to communicate telepathically with other people; and Forging – the act of removing a person’s emotions and humanity, named for the village of Forge where this first occurred. The first two are abilities which Fitz himself uses or attempts to use, without fully understanding either of them; the third is a method employed by the Red Ship Raiders who spend most of the novel attacking the coasts of the Six Duchies. All the other things we need to know about this world – history, geography, traditions – are described in brief passages at the beginning of each chapter so that we can learn gradually without having too much information thrown at us all at once.

I’ve discussed the plot and the setting, so what about the characters? Well, they are excellent as well. Fitz is one of the most endearing and engaging narrators I’ve come across for a long time. It would be difficult not to have sympathy for the lonely little boy he is at the beginning of the book, but I continued to love him as he grew into an awkward, insecure teenager. The other characters range from the ‘good’ (Burrich and Verity) to the ‘bad’ (Galen the Skillmaster and Prince Regal) to those, like King Shrewd, whose motives are more difficult to interpret. I was also intrigued by the Fool, who appears from time to time and gives Fitz advice in the form of cryptic riddles. I can see from the titles of some of Robin Hobb’s other books that the Fool must have a bigger part to play than was obvious from this first novel, so I’ll look forward to meeting him again.

Knowing that there are another two books in The Farseer Trilogy and having enjoyed this one so much, I will naturally be starting the second one as soon as possible!