Hobb, Robin. 1998. Ship of Magic. New York: Bantam.

Reviewed 30 May 1998

Ship of Magic (cover) This book was very disappointing. I really wanted to like it a lot more than I did, based on Robin Hobb's (Megan Lindholm's) prior work, particularly the recent Farseer trilogy (Assassin's Apprentice 4
stars, Royal Assassin 4 stars, and Assassin's Quest 3
stars). But this book, weighing in at 700 pages, has about 200 pages' worth of material. It needs an editor as ruthless as Richard Simmons. Well, more ruthless than that, but in any event some serious fat removal.

It's quite a shame, too, because the ideas and world creation are sound and interesting. Due to shadowy agreements with (presumably) magicians up the Wild Rain River, the Old Trader families of Bingtown can--for an appalling price, with an appalling penalty clause if not met--obtain "liveships." Liveships have personalties. Not just the personality that any sailing ship has, but real character. They're also impervious to a lot of damage.

The world is quite interesting, too. The economics are a bit shaky, but at the outside edge of plausibility. The trading system makes sense, although it's not backed up by enough apparent agriculture or crafts to support the stated population (unless yields are a lot greater than stated). But this is a minor flaw. The magic presented is quite subtle.

Aside: The author and editor should have known better than to create parts of the legal system using Anglo-American terminology. What is presented makes sense in its own context, but depends upon some definitions and concepts clearly not consistent with the common law at any historical period. What was presented was very confusing to someone, like me, with a foundation in legal history.

Hobb (Lindholm) also writes reasonably well, if a bit floridly. Her prose maintains an even, nonjudgmental voice. If she describes far too much and too often, she describes reasonably well. Her writing is worth some study, particularly by anyone who ever wants to write a "good" media tie-in. (Given the publisher, this shouldn't surprise anyone.)

It's a good thing, though, that Hobb's prose is nonjudgmental. Judgmental prose would expose the idiot plot and stereotypical character development that undermine the hard work the author put into setting up the world. The venal pirate with his obsessed-freedom-fighter sidekick; the young and inexperienced (father's favorite) female protagonist whose "rightful" inheritance is taken away by undeserving relatives, particularly a reprehensible in-law; the goodhearted mate with a history of substance abuse, who is really the irresponsible scion of an aristocratic family; the obvious "blossoming romance" between the latter two; the idiocy of the reprehensible in-law; and the unwilling relative forced into the family business all reek of a bad 19th-century semi-Gothic, or a Regency romance. So, for that matter, does the overstated cover.

That this nonsense goes on for 700 pages doesn't help. The book spends way too much energy describing irrelevant scenery, presumably in the name of maintaining suspension of disbelief. But that's not the problem. The world itself maintains suspension of disbelief; it's the characters and plot that fail to do so, and extraneous description won't help those weaknesses.

Overall rating: 2 stars
It's a shame to see fine tools misused like this. Hobb/Lindholm is a much better writer than this novel shows. Maybe things will pick up in the rest of the series . . . which is probably going to extend for at least another 1500 pages.

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