I doubt that there are many lovers of epic fantasy that wouldn’t list Robin Hobb as one of their favorite epic fantasy authors. Hobb creates wonderfully detailed worlds and characters that are complex and convincing. Her best-loved stories are those that star FitzChivalry Farseer, the bastard son of the man who abdicated the throne in the Six Duchies. Fitz’s best friend is a strange man he calls “The Fool.” We meet Fitz and the Fool in THE FARSEER SAGA, the first trilogy of the REALMS OF THE ELDERLINGS series. Their story continues years later in the TAWNY MAN trilogy and then, again after many years have passed, starts up again in Hobb’s latest trilogy, FITZ AND THE FOOL. The Fool never really tells Fitz what he does during the long periods of time that they are apart. Robin Hobb’s readers, however, can discover some of the answers to that mystery in the LIVESHIP TRADERS trilogy which takes place (and was published) between FARSEER and TAWNY MAN.
The first LIVESHIP TRADERS book, Ship of Magic (1998) begins a few years after the events of Assassin’s Quest (the last FARSEER book) and takes place in Bingtown, the Pirate Isles, and the Rain Wilds (which you can learn more about in Hobb’s RAIN WILDS CHRONICLES). All but one of the characters are new to the series at this point (assuming you’ve only read FARSEER so far), but you’ll see some of them again in future ELDERLINGS series. In fact, LIVESHIP TRADERS explains a lot about the origin of dragons, their relationship to serpents, and the denizens of the Rain Wilds. This information would be helpful (but not necessary) to know before you read TAWNY MAN and FITZ AND THE FOOL.
The best part of any book by Robin Hobb is the characterization. Hobb’s characters never conform to a stereotype and they are never too good or too bad to be believable. They, like real people, have traits and habits that are both admirable and unpleasant. They, like real people, grow as they deal with the triumphs and traumas that Hobb puts them through, yet they, like real people, still retain their natural temperaments and personalities. Hobb is a genius this way.
In Ship of Magic, there are several main characters who each have distinct goals, dreams, and troubles (I say “main characters” instead of “protagonists” because it’s impossible to think of any of Hobb’s characters as simply a “good guy” or “bad guy”):
Althea Vestrit, an ambitious and independently-minded young woman, is distraught because she expected to inherit Vivacia, her family’s sentient liveship. But because the Vestrit family is enduring a financial crisis and the ship is their livelihood, Althea’s father thought it was best to give command of Vivacia to Kyle Haven, the misogynistic husband of Keffria, Althea’s reliable and boring older sister. Althea’s father didn’t know that Kyle plans to start trading in the most profitable commodity available: slaves.
Malta Vestrit is Althea’s spoiled, shallow and sneaky niece (daughter of Kyle and Keffria) who is disgruntled because the family’s income has dwindled. Ronica is the competent and commanding mother and grandmother who is trying to keep the family afloat while mourning her dead husband. Wintrow, the son of Keffria and Kyle, is angry that he’s been called home from his monastery so he can help Kyle sail Vivacia. He’s especially upset (as is Althea) when he finds out they’ll be turning Vivacia into a slaver.
Brashen Trell, a competent captain who was disinherited by his family due to his unseemly lifestyle, was Vivacia’s first mate under Althea’s father, but Kyle has replaced him, so now he’s on his own. Kennit is a megalomaniacal pirate who plans to steal a liveship and become king of the Pirate Isles. Etta sees herself as Kennit’s favorite whore and nothing more. Paragon is a liveship who went crazy, killed his crew (twice) and has been beached by the family that owns him. Amber is a strange artisan who wants to buy Paragon.
In addition to these characters, there are many minor characters, including a “tangle” of sea serpents who are looking for a serpent they call “She Who Remembers” who, they hope, carries their memories of their race. If they don’t find her soon, their race’s proud heritage will be lost forever. The minor characters, by the way, are just as well-drawn as Hobb’s main characters.
We see the world from most of these characters’ perspectives and Hobb gives them plenty of time for introspection. Some readers will lose patience with this because the plot is not fast-paced (especially in the later books). Actually, a slow plot is something that I would normally complain about but, in this case, I enjoyed these complex characters so much, and found their development so realistic and interesting, that I didn’t mind. (It also may help that this was a re-read for me and I felt nostalgic about this series.)
But even with the intense focus on character development — and all of the main characters are significantly changed by the events in the story — Hobb gives us plenty of action in Ship of Magic, including ship battles and deadly sea monster attacks. Characters get sick, are tortured, have body parts amputated, and die in various horrible ways. There is also plenty of political intrigue and romance. This series is definitely “character-driven” as we like to say, but the plot is also complex, fascinating, and tight.
I listened to the audio version of Ship of Magic which was produced by Tantor Audio and read by Anne Flosnik. She does a nice job with each of the character voices. The audiobook is 35.5 hours long, though I listened to it at double speed.
THE FARSEER SAGA — (1995-2013) Words Like Coins is a short e-story published in 2012. The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince is a related prequel novella published in 2013. Publisher: Young Fitz is the bastard son of the noble Prince Chivalry, raised in the shadow of the royal court by his father’s gruff stableman. He is treated like an outcast by all the royalty except the devious King Shrewd, who has him secretly tutored in the arts of the assassin. For in Fitz’s blood runs the magic Skill — and the darker knowledge of a child raised with the stable hounds and rejected by his family. As barbarous raiders ravage the coasts, Fitz is growing to manhood. Soon he will face his first dangerous, soul-shattering mission. And though some regard him as a threat to the throne, he may just be the key to the survival of the kingdom.
LIVESHIP TRADERS –(1998-2000) 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. 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 unjustly denied her — a legacy she will risk anything to reclaim. For Althea’s young nephew Wintrow, wrenched from his religious studies and forced to serve aboard ship, Vivacia is a life sentence. But the fate of the Vestrit family — and the ship — may ultimately lie in the hands of an outsider. The ruthless pirate Kennit seeks a way to seize power over all the denizens of the Pirate Isles… and the first step of his plan requires him to capture his own liveship and bend it to his will…
TAWNY MAN — (2001-2003) For fifteen years FitzChivalry Farseer has lived in self-imposed exile, assumed to be dead by almost all who once cared about him. But that is about to change when destiny seeks him once again. Prince Dutiful, the young heir to the Farseer throne, has vanished and FitzChivalry, possessed of magical skills both royal and profane, is the only one who can retrieve him in time for his betrothal ceremony — thus sparing the Six Duchies profound political embarrassment… or worse. But even Fitz does not suspect the web of treachery that awaits him or how his loyalties to his Queen, his partner, and those who share his magic will be tested to The breaking point.
THE RAIN WILDS CHRONICLES — (2010-2012) Publisher: Guided by the great blue dragon Tintaglia, they came from the sea: a Tangle of serpents fighting their way up the Rain Wilds River, the first to make the perilous journey to the cocooning grounds in generations. Many have died along the way. With its acid waters and impenetrable forest, it is a hard place for any to survive. People are changed by the Rain Wilds, subtly or otherwise. One such is Thymara. Born with black claws and other aberrations, she should have been exposed at birth. But her father saved her and her mother has never forgiven him. Like everyone else, Thymara is fascinated by the return of dragons: it is as if they symbolise the return of hope to their war-torn world. Leftrin, captain of the liveship Tarman, also has an interest in the hatching; as does Bingtown newlywed, Alise Finbok, who has made it her life’s work to study all there is to know of dragons. But the creatures which emerge from the cocoons are a travesty of the powerful, shining dragons of old. Stunted and deformed, they cannot fly; some seem witless and bestial. Soon, they become a danger and a burden to the Rain Wilders: something must be done. The dragons claim an ancestral memory of a fabled Elderling city far upriver: perhaps there the dragons will find their true home. But Kelsingra appears on no maps and they cannot get there on their own: a band of dragon keepers, hunters and chroniclers must attend them. To be a dragon keeper is a dangerous job: their charges are vicious and unpredictable, and there are many unknown perils on the journey to a city which may not even exist…
FITZ AND THE FOOL — (2014- ) Publisher: FitzChivalry — royal bastard and former king’s assassin — has left his life of intrigue behind. As far as the rest of the world knows, FitzChivalry Farseer is dead and buried. Masquerading as Tom Badgerlock, Fitz is now married to his childhood sweetheart, Molly, and leading the quiet life of a country squire. Though Fitz is haunted by the disappearance of the Fool, who did so much to shape Fitz into the man he has become, such private hurts are put aside in the business of daily life, at least until the appearance of menacing, pale-skinned strangers casts a sinister shadow over Fitz’s past… and his future. Now, to protect his new life, the former assassin must once again take up his old one….