Thursday, March 12, 2015

Ship of Destiny Sails Smoothly

Someone famous once said that the end of a thing is better than its beginning. That’s definitely true of Robin Hobb’s Ship of Destiny, the final volume in The Liveship Traders Trilogy. Bingtown, the longtime home of the Vestrit family, has been destroyed by raiders without and treachery within. While Matriarch Ronica Vestrit tries to hold down the homestead in the aftermath, her oldest daughter Keffria has fled with the children up the caustic Rain Wild river. Only their hope of sanctuary has been leveled by a mighty earthquake and fearsome creature has risen from the rubble. Warships from the motherland of Jamalia bear down on Bingtown in the wake of the ruling Satrap’s disappearance during the fighting. Meanwhile, youngest daughter Althea has requisitioned an insane liveship named Paragon to help rescue the Vestrit’s own sentient vessel from a megalomaniacal pirate called Kennit, a fool’s errand that may end in utter disaster.

You can tell within a handful of pages that Hobb wants to wrap up the series with the proverbial bang. Whereas you could almost call the previous two volumes cozily domestic in their focus, Ship of Destiny gets epic pretty quickly. Massive naval battles. A ferocious monster slinging destruction left and right. Destinies of entire races hanging by a thread. Still, despite how impressively Hobb crafted those elements (and a multi-chapter, edge-of-your-seat nailbiter of a conclusion), I found myself more interested in the themes she addressed.

Ship of Destiny makes it seem as though Hobb wanted to use the trilogy to examine male and female power dynamics. Sounds dreadful, right? Yeah, only it's not. The books walk a middle path between the old damsel-in-distress trope and the joyless feminist ideal of the strong womyn who don't need no man. Ship of Destiny seems to say that it's good for women to get their hands dirty in self-determined pursuits. It's good for men to want to defend them when danger threatens. It's good to recognize every individual's sexual sovereignty over her—and his—own body. Yes, the series even manages to handle the combustible topic of rape with remarkable sensitivity and insight. In a time when genre fiction seems mired in the morass of identity politics, Ship of Destiny shows how stories can sail smoothly toward the subjects that make us human.

(Picture: CC 2011 by Caneles)

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