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)