I’m currently reliving Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders trilogy during my commute to and from work in the car. (Have I mentioned how much I love audiobooks?) I first read this amazing fantasy trilogy back in 2005 and it has since resided firmly near the top of my all-time favourite novels/series. Even so, I’ve previously read the trilogy only the once. Reliving it again now is a delicious treat – so much so that I find myself deliberately opting for peak hour, just so I can drive in the worst traffic and have 10 minutes longer each morning and evening with this brilliant story.
The Liveship Traders tells the story of the Vestrit Trader family, whose fortunes are derived from trade conducted by their liveship, Vivacia – a ship built of wizardwood, whose animated figurehead holds generations of family knowledge – and their struggle for survival in a world that is rapidly changing.
Unlike most ‘epic’ fantasy novels, the books do not have a single ‘all-powerful’ antagonist. Rather, the story relies on the life-and-death struggle of a cast of well-drawn and disparate (and desperate) characters in conflict with each other.
Some characters are more sympathetic to the reader than others, but even the ‘nice’ ones are supremely flawed. All are filled with conviction, and each character’s individual story is compelling and believable. Each acts according to his/her nature and the resulting events reflect cascading collisions of motive and desire.
In my view, The Liveship Traders is about the struggle for survival. The first book, Ship of Magic, focuses primarily on the struggle by several characters for mastery over the Vestrit family’s liveship, Vivacia (symbolic of life):
- Althea Vestrit – Upon her father’s death, Althea learns that her beloved ship has been bequeathed to her sister and detested brother-in-law (Kyle Haven), who throws her off the ship. She vows to recover Vivacia through proving herself as a sailor and out manoeuvring Kyle.
- Wintrow Vestrit – The son of Kyle Haven in training to become a priest, Wintrow is dragged from his chosen life by his father and forced to live aboard Vivacia and become a sailor. He battles his father’s dominance over him, while reluctantly coming to love Vivacia.
- Ronica Vestrit – Mother of Althea and the business brain behind the family, Ronica needs Vivacia to be profitable to prevent an ancient family vow from committing her granddaughter in marriage to pay the liveship debt.
- Captain Kennit – A notorious pirate, Kennit longs to be crowned king of the pirates and sail in his own liveship. Vivacia becomes his target.
- Kyle Haven – Married to and ‘responsible’ for the Vestrit family, Kyle believes it is his role to save the family from ruin. (Kyle is the least sympathetic of all characters, and undoubtedly plays the role of ‘the villain’ in this first book for both Althea and Wintrow.) He attempts to turn the family fortunes around by using Vivacia to traffic in slaves.
- Brashen Trell – Disowned by his Trader family, Brashen is struggling to ‘make a new life’ as a common sailor and dispel the taint of his youthful indiscretions. He alone of the major characters has no vested interest in Vivacia; his story is entwined with Althea’s, as he provides unconditional friendship, love and support for her.
Thus is Vivacia the bone of contention in Ship of Magic: loved and desired by Althea, resented and reluctantly loved by Wintrow, used and abused by Kyle; coveted and ultimately captured by Kennit; the vessel of hope for Ronica. The symbol of life thus becomes the object that threatens to tear apart the lives of these characters.
As a writer, I learnt a lot about character and conflict through reading this series. I love (and am in awe of) the way Hobb sets up a large cast of characters, gives each of them such strong, believable goals and then pits one character up against another. Because they have directly conflicting desires, each sees the other as an antagonist. Even Kyle (whom I detest) – misguided, foolish and cruel – believes he is acting in the best interests of his family.
Even more impressive to me is the way Hobb escalates the story through the trilogy and broadens her focus to reveal just how trivial the battle for Vivacia really is.
But the best thing about this series (and Hobb’s writing in general) is the way she makes me feel when I’m reading. I laugh, I hate, I love, I cry when I’m reading these books. Her characters are among the best I’ve ever encountered.
Which books have affected you most powerfully? Fellow writers: What’s the best writing lesson you’ve learnt from reading?