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Robin Hobb trilogy

I've finally finished Robin Hobb's Liveship Traders series. This one gets the big thumbs-up. George R. R. Martin recommended Hobb on his website, and after reading this series, I can see why. Any author who can weave an engaging story around a talking ship has got to be a good writer. Robin Hobb is good.

The story takes place along the same coastline as Hobb's earlier Assassin series, but much farther south. There are only one or two references to the earlier books, though, so if you blink past these parts you'll miss the connection. Don't worry; these series are completely self-contained, and there's no need to read one before the other. The only reason to do so is to see how much Hobb's skills have improved with the later series.

Vivacia is a sailing ship owned by the Vestrit family of Bingtown. The ship is partially made of wizardwood, which is capable of becoming sentient if enough generations of Vestrits die on deck and lend their life forces to the ship. Althea Vestrit has grown up sailing with her father aboard Vivacia, and she expects to inherit the ship when her father dies and the ship comes to life. Unfortunately for Althea, her father leaves the ship to her sister Keffria, which means that under the patriarchal traditions of Bingtown society the captaincy belongs to Keffria's strong-willed husband Kyle Haven.

Kyle is a real asshole without being a caricature. Hobb's best asset may be her characters, which are uniformly believable and interesting. Kyle Haven is one of those men who truly wants to do what's right, and thinks that this gives him the right to direct the lives of everyone around him. He's infuriating, and all the more so for being realistic. Hobb must have known a few men like Kyle Haven in her own life. Althea, anyway, can't stand Kyle and abandons her ship Vivacia once he becomes the captain. Kyle's pig-headedness leads him to start carrying loads of slaves in the ship's hold, and this foretells doom.

Ultimately, Kyle and the Vivacia meet up with the pirate Kennit, who is both ruthless and a complete sociopath. Hobb makes us privy to Kennit's thoughts, and we realize that although he is charming and courageous and bold and charismatic, he is utterly devoid of concern for anyone besides himself. Nevertheless, the charm and charisma enable Kennit to attract a loyal following, which eventually includes Kyle's young son Wintrow.

There are also packs of huge sea serpents, an acidic river that runs past a buried city from a lost civilization, and a drug-addicted young Satrap who rules over the Jamaillian Empire to the south of Bingtown. These elements make for an engaging story that rarely lets up over the course of three books.

The worst part about Hobb's earlier Assassin series was the plot. While the plotting still isn't as good as the characterization, she's improved it dramatically over what it was in Assassin. Her settings are also good, although they're the weakest part of the story. I never felt like I really knew what Bingtown looked like, or Amber's store, or Captain Kennit's cabin, in the way that George R. R. Martin made me aware of what the Wall was like, or Winterfell. But that's a minor quibble. Hobb's characters are so interesting that you really don't care where they are, so long as you find out what happens to them.