Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Wind Never Quite Fills Mad Ship's Sails

Note: This review contains very mild spoilers.

I'm fascinated by the dynamics of trilogies. You'd think that this de facto path winding through virtually all fantasy epics would be worn wide and deep by now. But that's not the case. The narrative ebb and flow of three-volume stories is surprisingly varied. For instance, take The Star Wars Trilogy (of which I recognize only one, darn it). It started strong, reached the apogee of its excitement with The Empire Strikes Back, and finished with the surprisingly thinly plotted Return of the Jedi. (Note to George: Special effects never trump story.) From a flow perspective, Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is more rutted than a backcountry dirt road. Interludes of exhilaration bump up against descriptive dips, and the action plunges into a ditch with the incongruous second half of The Return of the King. Of course, Tolkien's thematic commitments and desire to have his magnum opus read as a single large story explain much of that. I wonder if some similar dynamic is at work with Robin Hobb's uneven Mad Ship, the second volume in The Liveship Traders trilogy.

The Vestrit family lies in shambles. Financial straits have forced matriarch Ronica to desperate action in an attempt to keep her estate afloat, including allowing her son-in-law to turn the family's sentient liveship Vivacia into a slave vessel. Incensed by the decision, youngest daughter Althea has left their home of Bingtown for the open sea, determined to prove that she'd be a better captain of Vivacia. Oldest daughter Keffria detests her sister's actions, but has her hands full trying to manage her own daughter, Malta. For her part, headstrong Malta sees little danger in leading on the son of a powerful family that holds much of the Vestrit's debt. And no one at home realizes that Vivacia's maiden voyage has ended in disaster. Against this background of familial strife, storm clouds billow as a self-indulgent satrap turns his eye toward Bingtown, a sociopathic pirate eyes the title of king, and a clutch of deadly sea serpents start harrying the waterways.

Even with all that plot summary above, I haven't touched on the titular insane vessel of Mad Ship. I couldn't find a way to make it flow, and perhaps that hints at the book's primary problem: It's a tangle of subplots that entwine and unravel without ever twisting into overarching action. Characters come and go, fortunes rise and fall, but it all feels as though it's building to a climax that doesn't come. Not to say that it lacks action. Both a shipboard encounter with a sea serpent and a high-speed abduction by highwaymen thrill. Ditto for Hobb's robust take on femininity, which owes more to Hebraic ideas than modern feminism. Yet these are more the sauce than the meat of the story. The wind never quite fills Mad Ship's sails. But given the events set in motion, I'm willing to bet that The Liveship Traders trilogy be exhilarating indeed when read as a whole.

(Picture: CC 2006 by efilpera)


Daniel said...

Loren - having just finished the trilogy recently (I actually went straight on to the Tawny Man trilogy and am nearing its end as well), I found that the Mad Ship story arc finds its conclusions in the third book. It's definitely a trilogy-as-a-unit situation, as is the Tawny Man trilogy. I'm interested to see if you agree when you get there.

Loren Eaton said...


That's what I was guessing would happen! Hobb sets up so many delicious conflicts that I figured she'd have to make them pay off in Ship of Destiny (which I just started, by the way).

How The Tawny Man trilogy?

Daniel said...

Whoops. Hey there, Loren from a month ago! The Tawny Man trilogy was very good. In short I found it to have the same strengths and weaknesses of the Farseer trilogy: the characters are wonderful, the drama is slow-burning but emotionally powerful, the stories are drawn out but resolve satisfyingly. I would recommend it. (I'm on to the next series in the sequence, now, and still going strong.)

Loren Eaton said...

No worries, Daniel. I'm definitely going to read some more Hobb, but I think I'll take a break from her for a little while. Her books require a fair bit of investment. That being said, I just finished "Ship of Destiny" -- and you were entirely right about it.

Daniel said...

Oh good, I'm glad you liked how it turned out. And yes, her books are very emotionally (at the very least) demanding. I don't think ever I've cried at so many successive books.

If I weren't exhausted from switching being series and losing track of background info and lore every time, I'd take a break, but as it is I'm having an easier time just plowing through to the end and not having to pick up loose threads between authors.

Loren Eaton said...

They are quite emotional, but what fatigues me is their length. You really have to keep track of a whole slew of characters and plot threads. Though it makes me a rarity among fantasy fans, I really prefer shorter novels. The Pastel City and Stardust are about the perfect length for me. Also, both are AWESOME.