Book Review: Liveship Traders Trilogy (Ship of Magic, The Mad Ship, Ship of Destiny) by Robin Hobb, 1998-2000

A Tale That Takes Too Long to Wind Up Unravels At The End.

It would have been easy to forgive Hobb for taking too long before she starts cooking. However, I can’t look past the ending she finally serves.

My Rating: cropped-starcropped-star

If there was a hidden blessing of going through a 2000+ page trilogy I ultimately didn’t like, it was that I can still read through a 2000+ page trilogy. I guess social media hasn’t completely rewired my brain. Robin Hobb wasn’t doing me any favors, either.

A common complaint of this Trilogy is the page count. Wherever you ultimately put the number of excess pages, a good chunk of the book is fluff, repetitive, and uninteresting. The first half of the Ship of Magic is a complete slog that is constantly adding new characters but never intertwining them. When she finally circled back around to someone, I had to read with intent to try and recall exactly who they were.

Things really pick up speed in the second half of the first novel, and we are treated to some of the most intricate characters from the Realm of Elderings Series. If you thought Fitz, the Fool, Patience, Verity, and Burrich were a hodgepodge of humanity in all of its complicated glory, the characters from The Liveship Traders trilogy ups the ante. These people are in complex situations and have unique emotional coloring. I became invested in them.

That’s why I don’t like the events in book three. The finale turns around one major event (a massive spoiler alert as I will be talking about it later) that eradicates the character building done hitherto. Afterwards, everyone decides to act like something they are completely not to tidely square everything away. It was a betrayal to the spirit of the characters Hobb gave such life to.

While the main protagonist is ostensibly Althea, a Bingtown Trader who lost her family Liveship The Vivacia to pirates, she really is the sideshow to the King of the Pirates — Kennit.

Kennit is a classic Robin Hobb character with multiple angles and layers. Kennit is a weird mixture of traits that is akin to a likeable psychopath — ruthless but also very charismatic. All of his actions are for his own narcissistic goals, but the byproduct is a more just society.

He originally interrupts the rampant slave trade to coax his fellow pirates into helping him capture a Liveship – a magical ship that has absorbed the memory of multiple generations from a sailor family. With these memories, the liveship becomes an animated figurehead capable of making quick decisions and speedy flights. Kennit wants to capture a Liveship to terrorize any and all to become the “King of the Pirates.”

After capturing multiple slaving ships, killing the crew, and releasing the captives, he begins to build an army of followers. Ex-slaves begin integrating into towns telling everyone of their savior, and Kennit becomes a venerated figure. Kennit continues freeing slaves, but it is hard to figure him out: is this all for ego or is there a part of his heart wanting to do good in the world?

This moral ambiguity around Kennit is very important. Wintrow, Althea’s brother who was in training to be a priest, is captured by Kennit and serves under him. Wintrow originally thinks of him as nothing but a vicious marauder, but after seeing all the goodness of Kennit’s actions, becomes one of his biggest and most vocal supporters, even in the ultimate showdown between Althea and Kennit over the Liveship.

This is where everything falls apart.

In a vicious turn of events, Kennit drugs Althea and rapes her. After seeing how Kennit was truly the villain of the story, no one could pretend that Kennit was just a “flawed” but ultimately alright guy.

Hobb goes on to make multiple missteps from this:

  • Kennit goes on to die a Hero’s death, returning to the Liveship of his childhood to have his memories absorbed. It is framed way too favorable and the rapist was never dealt with appropriately.
  • Althea, who’s entire character arc was based on growth through trials and tribulations to be the captain of her family’s Liveship, decides to just settle down with her love interest and let Vivacia go. It was completely unlike her, and it felt like the rapist won!
  • Wintrow, the tender soul of a priest who too easily trusted Kennit as he violated everything he thought was scared, doesn’t raise to the occasion once he sees Kennit for what he truly was. He just replaces Kennit as a lead pirate. The insightful, introspective Wintrow just decides to be a pirate…even though he never liked being a sailor!
  • Kennit’s love interest, whose name escapes me 😳, becomes the defacto “King of the Pirates” because she is pregnant with his child. She wanted to break free and be her own person. Wasn’t that what got us excited when she started flirting with Wintrow? Hoping that she would find her self worth and escape the the pull of Kennit? Now, even with Kennit dead, she is continued to be chained to him due to carrying his child. Where is the lamenting of her freedom? Or upset because she harbors the child of someone so evil?
  • In an all-time let down, Kyle Haven, who married into Althea’s family to become captain of the Liveship, is captured by Kennit and stowed away on an island all the way back in book one. He is freed by Althea’s love interest at the end of book three. What will Kyle do after being locked up for 1500 pages? Take a couple arrows to the chest and die almost right afterward. What was the point of that? No confrontation between him and Wintrow? Where he gets to see how wrong he was about Wintrow?

All the pending confrontations float away as people end up in predestined places, even if their ultimate roles make no sense. The ending is so neatly packaged because they are tidely swept into spots without any residue of conflict.


The ending has every character act out of character. I don’t know what to make of it.

Other People’s Takes:

  • Water Color Stain: “If you have read the Farseer trilogy and are either tempted to skip ahead to Tawny Man to continue with the same cast of characters, or didn’t like it and want to drop the rest of the series, please don’t—you’ll miss out on one of the best female protagonists I’ve ever come across, and a self-contained series that I thought superior to the Farseer one in every conceivable way.
  • A Dance With Books: “The Mad Ship didn’t completely sell me on the trilogy initially. It is slow and we dive very deeply into various things where I wondered how everything would end up coming together. There are also some unlikeable characters whose point of view we got that I didn’t quite enjoyed. However in The Mad Ship this changed considerably.
  • Embuhleeliest: This is not a light, fluffy book. Hardship after hardship happens to the Vestrit family and after a while, I found myself seriously rooting for them. Total mental anguish, man. It was so, so worth it though. I’ve said a billion times now that endings make or break a series for me, and this one totally made it.

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