It started with a plan. I hadn't read a proper fantasy novel in ages, and a free copy of a lengthy title from a lauded author had landed in my lap. Time to bolt down the whole book down in a few sittings, right? Well, things didn't go according to plan, and by the one-third mark, I had to admit that I was flipping through the lengthy page count with all the speed of a narcoleptic gastropod. A brilliantly imagined setting can't carry a thousand-page book by itself. Still, I might've finished if the coup de grâce hadn't come from an unexpected quarter: the public library. My hold on Robin Hobb's Ship of Magic, the first installment in The Liveship Traders trilogy, had finally been fulfilled.
Storm clouds are gathering around Bingtown. Over generations, the town's seafaring traders have transformed it from a hardscrabble colony to a wealthy port of renown. They owe their riches to a monopoly on lucrative trade routes granted as a reward for settling the magic-blighted lands. Only they can brave the caustic waters of the most profitable waterways in intelligent liveships, but it comes at the price of losing unborn children to strange birth defects, a side effect of the mystical energies imbuing the area. However, a new satrap's willingness to bend ancient covenants in order to sate his prurient passions threatens their way of life. No family feels it more than the Vestrits. Patriarch Ephron Vestrit is dying, and his liveship, Vivacia, will gain sentience at his passing, a quickening concomitant with vastly increased financing costs. (Built of rare wizardwood, a liveship is so costly as to entail decades of debt.) Daughter Althea thinks she'll inherit the captaincy of the vessel, but her mother, Ronica, believes she lacks the savvy to see the family through fiscally lean times. Kyle Haven, husband to weak-willed oldest daughter Keffria, has trading experience, but also seems set on remaking the household in his own image. And domestic discord is far from the Vestrits' only danger. Flesh-eating sea serpents prowl the waters, and an ambitious pirate named Kennit deigns to rule the shipping lanes. Then there's the danger inherent in Vivacia herself, a vessel with a will all her own and a nigh century's worth of communal memory carried in her hull.
Okay, see that ungainly plot summary above? It embodies the biggest problem with Ship of Magic: its length. I wonder how many potential readers the genre has scared off with the titanic thickness of its books. Still, it's hard not to forgive Hobb once you realize that she's using the novel's breadth to build more than just a magical setting. She's setting up a family conflict so potent I actually felt my blood pressure spike while reading key confrontations. Fantasy usually goes big, fixating on kingdoms in peril and clashes on blood-soaked battlefields. Not so with Ship of Magic. You'd call it cozy fantasy if that descriptor didn't make it sound trite. It's anything but. The edition I read featured a cover blurb from George R.R. Martin ("Fantasy as it ought to be written"), and what an appropriate marketing choice. Though Hobb doesn't slaughter protagonists left and right, she deftly twitches the tangled strings of conflict to make relatively minor events shiver with strife. The bluing of dying man's lips. The prick of a tattooist's pen. A wounded sailor discussing how best to remove his mutilated finger. They raise more hackles than armed conflict. Perhaps the best testimony I can give is that, despite its length, Ship of Magic made me want to immediately turn to the next volume in the series as soon as I'd finished it.
(Picture: CC 2007 by Melissa Nilsson)