Bingtown is a hub of exotic trade and home to a merchant nobility famed for its liveships—rare vessels carved from wizardwood, which ripens magically into sentient awareness. Now the fortunes of one of Bingtown’s oldest families rest on the newly awakened liveship Vivacia.
For Althea Vestrit, the ship is her rightful legacy. For Althea’s young nephew, wrenched from his religious studies and forced to serve aboard the ship, the Vivacia is a life sentence. But the fate of the ship—and the Vestrits—may ultimately lie in the hands of an outsider: the ruthless buccaneer captain Kennit, who plans to seize power over the Pirate Isles by capturing a liveship and bending it to his will.
BONUS: This edition includes an excerpt from Robin Hobb’s Mad Ship.
About the Book
Ship of Magic
by Robin Hobb
Liveship Traders Trilogy Book One
SciFi & Fantasy
December 30, 2003
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I loved this book.
The idea of sentient, talking sailing ships is so wonderful. The ship and human characters are all complex and vivid. There’s Althea, who just wants to sail on her family’s liveship, but can’t. There’s Winthrow, who was pulled unwillingly out of priest training to serve on the ship in her place. Vivacia herself is a young ship who has just woken up, and needs someone to be her friend. Meanwhile, Kennit is an ambitious pirate who wants to capture a liveship for himself.
The world-building is immersive but leaves lots of tantalizing mysteries here and there to keep you turning pages. What happened to drive the liveship Paragon mad and make him kill his crew? What exactly are the sea serpents trying to remember, and what will happen if they do? What’s behind the talking charm that pirate wears, that keeps saying things in his voice that he doesn’t want it to say? Just how much trouble can Althea’s flirty little niece Malta get into before someone smacks her? I guess I’d better read book two.
The only problem with the book is that for me it had a slow start. I was a few chapters in before I really got hooked. It was definitely worth it though.
If you are a fantasy fan that hasn’t started reading Robin Hobb yet, Ship of Magic is a fine place to jump in. It’s set in the same universe as her previous Farseer trilogy but you don’t need to have read the previous books to read this one. You will want to read the next ones though! Ship of Magic definitely ends like the first part of a tight trilogy.
The review copy of this book was gifted to the review by a friend. All titles reviewed on this blog are a fair and honest assessment of the book. No monetary compensation was received in exchange for this review. For more information regarding our review process, please visit our Review Policy & Review Request Submission page.
Excerpt of Ship of Magic
Althea longed for a fresh-water bath. As she toiled up the companionway to the deck, every muscle in her body ached, and her head pounded from the thick air of the aft hold. At least her task was done. She’d go to her stateroom, wash with a wet towel, change her clothes and perhaps even nap for a bit. And then she’d go to confront Kyle. She’d put it off long enough, and the longer she waited, the more uncomfortable she became. She’d get it over with and then damn well live with whatever it brought down on her.
“Mistress Althea.” She had no more than gained the deck before Mild confronted her. “Cap’n requires you.” The ship’s boy grinned at her, half-apologetic, half-relishing being the bearer of such tidings.
“Very well, Mild,” she said quietly. Very well, her thoughts echoed to herself. No wash, no clean clothes and no nap before the confrontation. Very well. She took a moment to smooth her hair back from her face and to tuck her blouse back into her trousers. Prior to her task, they had been her cleanest work clothes. Now the coarse cotton of the blouse stuck to her back and neck with her own sweat, while the trousers were smudged with oakum and tar from working in the close quarters of the hold. She knew her face was dirty, too. Well. She hoped Kyle would enjoy his advantage. She stooped down as if to re-fasten her shoe, but instead placed her hand flat on the wood of the deck. For an instant she closed her eyes and let the strength of the Vivacia flow through her palm. “Oh, ship,” she whispered as softly as if she prayed. “Help me stand up to him.” Then she stood, her resolve firm once more.
As she crossed the twilit deck to the captain’s quarters, not an eye would meet hers. Every hand was suddenly very busy or simply looking off in another direction. She refused to glance back to see if they watched after her. Instead she kept her shoulders squared and her head up as she marched to her doom.
She rapped sharply at the door of the captain’s quarters and waited for his gruff reply. When it came she entered, and then stood still, letting her eyes adjust to the yellow lantern light. In that instant, she felt a sudden wash of homesickness. The intense longing was not for any shoreside house, but rather for this room as it once had been. Memories dizzied her. Her father’s oilskins had hung on that hook, and the smell of his favorite rum had flavored the air. Her own hammock he had rigged in that corner when he had first allowed her to start living aboard the Vivacia, that he might better watch over her. She knew a moment of anger as her eyes took in Kyle’s clutter overlaying the familiar hominess of these quarters. A nail in his boot had left a pattern of scars across the polished floorboards. Ephron Vestrit had never left charts out, and would never have tolerated the soiled shirt flung across the chair back. He did not approve of an untidy deck anywhere on his ship, and that included his own quarters. His son-in-law Kyle apparently did not share those values.
Althea pointedly stepped over a discarded pair of trousers to stand before the captain at his table. Kyle let her stand there for a few moments while he continued to peruse some notation on the chart. A notation in her father’s own precise hand, Althea noticed, and took strength from that even as her anger burned at the thought that he had access to the family’s charts. A Trader family’s charts were among their most guarded possessions. How else could one safeguard one’s swiftest routes through the Inside Passage, and one’s trading ports in lesser-known villages? Still, her father had entrusted these charts to Kyle; it was not up to her to question his decision.
Kyle continued to ignore her, but she refused to rise to his bait. She stood silent and patient, but did not let his apparent disinterest fluster her. After a time he lifted his eyes to regard her. Their blueness was as unlike her father’s steady black eyes as his unruly blond hair was unlike her father’s smooth black queue. Once more she wondered with distaste what had ever possessed her older sister to desire such a man. His Chalcedean blood showed in his ways as much as in his body. She tried to keep her disdain from showing on her face, but her control was wearing thin. She’d been too long at sea with this man.
This last voyage had been interminable. Kyle had muddled what should have been a simple two-month turnaround trip along Chalced’s coast into a five-month trading trek full of unnecessary stops and marginally profitable trade runs. She was convinced all of it was an effort on his part to show her father what a sly trader he could be. For herself, she had not been impressed. At Tusk he had stopped and taken on pickled sea-duck eggs, always an uncertain cargo, and barely made dock in Brigtown in time to sell them off before they went rotten. In Brigtown, he’d taken on bales of cotton, not just enough to fill the empty space in the holds but enough to make a partial deck load as well. Althea had had to bite her tongue and watch her crew take their chances as they scrambled over and around the heavy bales, and then they’d had a late gale that had soaked and most likely ruined the portion of the load on deck. She hadn’t even asked him what the profit had been, if any, when he’d stopped to auction it off in Dursay. Dursay had been their last port. The wine casks had yet again been shifted about to allow for a whim cargo. Now, in addition to the wines and brandies that had comprised their original cargo, the hold was stuffed with crates of comfer nuts. Kyle had held forth endlessly on the good price they’d bring, both for the fragrant oil from their kernels for soap and the lovely yellow dye that could be made from their husks. Althea thought that if he crowed once more about the extra profit this would wring from the voyage, she’d throttle him. But self-congratulation was not in the gaze he turned on her. It was cold as seawater, lit with tiny glints of anger.
He neither smiled nor bid her be seated. Instead he simply demanded. “What were you doing in the aft hold?”
Someone had run to the captain and tattled. She kept her voice steady. “I re-stowed the cargo.”
It was a statement, almost an accusation. But it was not a question, so she did not need to make any answer. Instead, she stood very straight under that piercing gaze. She knew he expected her to babble out explanations and excuses, as Keffria would have. But she was not her sister, nor his wife. He suddenly slammed his palm down on the table before him, and though the sudden impact made her flinch, she still did not speak. She watched him waiting for her to say something, and then felt an odd sense of victory when his temper snapped.
“Did you presume to tell the men to change how that cargo was stowed?”
She spoke very softly, very calmly. “No. I did not. I did the work myself. My father has taught me that aboard a ship, one must see what needs doing, and do it. That is what I have done. I arranged the casks as father would have had them done, were he here. Those casks are now as every shipment of wine has been stowed since I was ten years old, bung up and bilge free, fore and aft, ends wedged off in the wings. They are secure, and if they have not already been spoiled by jostling, they will be marketable when we get to Bingtown.”
His cheeks grew pink. Althea wondered how Keffria could stand a man whose cheeks turned pink when he was angry. She braced herself. When Kyle spoke, his voice was not raised, but the longing to shout the words was clear in his clipped accent.
“Your father is not here, Althea. That is precisely the point. I am the master of this vessel, and I gave commands as to how I wanted that cargo stowed. Yet again you have gone behind my back and countermanded those orders. I can’t have this interference between me and my crew. You sow discord.”
She spoke quietly. “I acted on my own, by myself. I gave the crew no orders at all, nor did I even speak of what I intended to do. I have done nothing to come between you and the crew.” She clamped her jaws shut before she could say more. She would not tell him that what stood between him and his crew was his own lack of expertise. The sailors who would have gone to their deaths willingly for her father now spoke openly in the forecastle of finding another vessel when next they shipped out. Kyle was in danger of destroying the hand-picked crew that her father had spent the last decade assembling.
Kyle looked furious that she would contradict him. “It is enough that you went against my orders. That is all it takes to challenge my authority. Your bad example on this ship makes the crew restless. Then I am forced to clamp down the discipline. You should be ashamed for what you bring down on them. But no. You don’t care one whit for that. You’re above the captain. Althea Vestrit is probably above almighty Sa! You’ve shown the entire crew your complete disregard for my orders. Were you truly a sailor, I’d make an example of you, one that would prove my orders are the only orders on this ship. But you’re nothing but a spoiled merchant’s brat. I’ll treat you as such, and spare the flesh of your back. But only until you cross me again. Take this warning to heart, girl. I am captain of this vessel, and my word on this ship is law.”
Althea did not speak, but neither did she look aside. She met his gaze levelly and kept as much expression off her face as she could. The pink spread to Kyle’s forehead. He took a breath and reached for control. He speared her with his eyes. “And what are you, Althea?”
She had not expected such a question. Accusations and rebukes she could deal with silently. But in asking her a question, he demanded an answer, and she knew it would be construed as open defiance. So be it. “I am the owner of this vessel,” she said with as much dignity as she could muster.
“Wrong!” This time he did shout. But in an instant he had mastered himself. He leaned forward on the table and near spat the words at her. “You are the daughter of the owner. And even were you the owner, it wouldn’t make a whit of difference. It’s not the owner who commands the ship, it’s the captain. You’re not the captain, you’re not the mate. You aren’t even a proper sailor. All you do is take a stateroom to yourself that should be the second mate’s, and do only the chores it suits you to do. The owner of this vessel is Ephron Vestrit, your father. He is the one who gave the Vivacia over to my command. If you cannot respect me for who I am, then respect your father’s choice to captain his ship.”
“But for my age, he would have made me captain. I know the Vivacia. I should be her captain.”
As soon as the words were out of her mouth, Althea regretted them. It was all the opening he had needed, this voicing of what they both knew was true.
“Wrong again. You should be at home, married off to some fancy boy as spoiled as yourself. You haven’t the faintest idea of how to captain a vessel. You believe that because your father has allowed you to play at sailoring you know how to command a vessel. You’ve come to believe you’re destined to captain your father’s ship. You’re wrong. Your father only brought you aboard because he had no sons of his own. He as much as told me so, when Wintrow was born. Were not the Vivacia a liveship, requiring a family member aboard, I’d never have tolerated your pretenses for a moment. But bear this in mind. A member of the Vestrit family is all this ship requires; it needn’t be you. If this ship demands a Vestrit aboard her, then she can bear one that has Haven for a surname. My sons share as much of your sister’s blood as mine, they’re as much Vestrit as Haven. And the next time this ship leaves Bingtown, one of my boys will take your place on her. You’ll be left ashore.”
Althea could feel she had gone white. The man had no idea what he was saying to her, had no idea of the depth of his threat. It only proved he had no true concept of what a liveship was. He should have never been allowed authority over the Vivacia. If only her father had been well, he would have seen that.
Something of both her despair and defiance must have shown in her face, for Kyle Haven’s mouth grew tauter. She wondered if he fought down a smile as he added, “You are confined to your quarters for the remainder of this voyage. And now you are dismissed.”
She stood her ground. As well have it out then, now that the lines were drawn. “You have declared that I am not even a sailor aboard this vessel. Very well, then. If that is so, then I am not yours to command. And I have no idea why you fancy that you will command the Vivacia on her next voyage. When we return to Bingtown, I have every expectation that my father will have recovered his health and will resume his command. And hold it, until such time as ship and command are both mine.”
He fixed her with a flat stare. “Do you really think so, Althea?”
She puffed up with hatred, believing for an instant that he mocked her faith that her father would recover. But he went on, “Your father’s a good captain. And when he hears what you’ve been up to, countermanding my orders, sowing discord among the men, making mock of me behind my back—”
“Making mock of you?” Althea demanded.
Kyle gave a snort of disdain. “Do you think you can get drunk and witless and throw wild words about Dursay town and not have them come back to me? It only shows what a fool you are.”
Althea raced frantically through her scrabbled memories of Dursay. She had got drunk, yes, but only once, and she remembered vaguely that she’d bemoaned her situation to some shipmates. Who? The faces blurred in her memory, but she knew it had been Brashen who’d rebuked her, daring to tell her to shut her hatch and keep private problems private. She did not recall just what she’d said, but now she had a fair idea of who had tattled.