Robin Hobb’s Farseer books were books that I admired and respected, but ultimately didn’t actually like that much. Or so I remember. After reading Robin Hobb’s Ship of Magic, Mad Ship, and Ship of Destiny recently, I’m starting to doubt my old judgment — because the Liveship Traders trilogy is some excellent fantasy, even as it possesses the elements that I remember not liking about the Farseer trilogy.
For instance, one of the reasons I didn’t love the Farseer books was that they were grim and depressing. (That’s not really a criticism — they’re clearly meant to be non-cheery — but it’s a pretty common trait in books that I respect but don’t like.) Well, the Liveship books aren’t exactly full of happiness and light; Hobb makes her characters suffer a rather large amount. But it works, and the Liveship books manage to avoid feeling overly gloomy, despite some pretty horrific things.
Or take another one of the complaints that I (and a lot of other people) had with the Farseer books: The way that the final book just went off the rails, plot-wise. You’d been led to believe that you were reading a pretty standard quest fantasy, and you know how those go; but then all the sudden, it didn’t go that way. It seemed like a structural flaw at the time, but now I wonder, because the Liveship Traders books do the same thing, just about every chapter. People will make plans or resolutions, and you’ll think to yourself, “Oh, okay, so that’s how it’s going to go,” and then it absolutely fails to go that way. Events make the plan obsolete before it can be implemented; human weakness causes resolutions to be abandoned; and in general, the books are unpredictable all the way through.
Not only does this lead to unpredictability, it also leads to a sense that the plot is organic and genuinely driven by the actions of real people. Epic fantasy plots, by their nature, require the orchestration of huge casts in intricate activities. For a writer to have multiple groups of characters traipsing all over the world, but coming together in just the right spot at just the right time requires planning and pulling of strings. In the worst epic fantasy, this feels transparent and false; but even in good epic fantasy, it generally feels a bit too pat. Typically, invocations to destiny or the gods are used to distract the eye from the heavy hand of the author’s machinations.
But the Liveship books avoid this problem almost entirely. When the characters all get together, it’s because they all have very good reasons for going where they’re going at exactly the times they’re going there. And the constant revisions of plans in the face of events makes the character’s actions even more genuine-feeling. The idea that people can make elaborate long-term plans, and then proceed to methodically carry them out is a narrative conceit designed to produce tidy plots, not an accurate description of how the world really works.
And then there’s all the other stuff the book does right: Great, original world-building (this is set in the same world as the Farseer trilogy, but it feels distinctly different), complex and nuanced characters, and that sense of deep immersion you only get when you’re reading a series of 600+ page books. Oh, and also, it’s finished, so there are no interminable waits for the next book (and no fear that the next book is going to suck).
Highly recommended to anyone who reads epic fantasy, but doesn’t like feeling guilty about it.