Liveship Traders Trilogy: Review

After my abysmal experience with Robin Hobb’s first trilogy, Farseer, I was leery of diving into another of her very long creations.  However, Schmoopie assured me it was much better.  While this ended up being true, it was a case of damning with faint praise.  Once again, Hobb takes an interesting beginning and by the end of the trilogy turns it into something tawdry and unfulfilling.  Promises made between author and reader are broken and nothing of equivalent value substituted.  In short, we have another case of a good book soiled by an author’s inability to write a proper ending.

The first book plants seeds in very fertile ground as Kyle Haven with his angry, unthinking ways sunders a family.  Hobb does an excellent job of making even Haven well-rounded, at some level he really does think he is doing what is best for his family.  You sympathize with Althea’s sorrow at losing her ship while recognizing that she is not a little spoiled.  Meanwhile Wintrow loses the life he has come to love, but his sulky greeting of his new life begins to grate.

And so the plot begins with momentum as Althea goes out to win her ship back and Wintrow sails with Kyle.  Unfortunately, Hobb, of course, renders moot most of what Althea accomplishes during this period and as she always does, spends far too much time on the trivial details of her escapades.  It is really Wintrow’s plot that keeps it moving.  His philosophical discussions with Vivacia, his sentient ship, about slavery and his place in the world echo a formative time we all encounter as young adults.  Kyle is the best villain in the entire trilogy, a fact merely affirmed when he allows his own son to be branded a slave.

Of course, I have not yet mentioned Kennit, Pirate King, because he is hard to pin down.  In some ways the books are really about him despite the books prophet, Amber, following around the Vestrits.  However, even in his central role, Kennit as a character does not evolve as the trilogy progresses.  We have complete insight into his thoughts and so we know that he is rotten to the core and it is only interesting how he soullessly manipulates people the first few times.  By the end of the trilogy this particularly conceit is tired and worn and you wonder how people could be so blind to his inner nature.  It’s not like he veils his callous disregard for everyone else very well, yet the supposedly intelligent Wintrow becomes a fanatical devotee.  It may have behooved the trilogy to never proceed from Kennit’s viewpoint so as to keep the reader more unsure about his motives and character.

From the point where Kennit and Wintrow’s paths finally intersect, the book starts to go steadily downhill.  The interactions between the Pirate King and his pupil are engaging up until the point that Wintrow becomes Kennit’s yes-man.  Meanwhile, events in Bingtown occupy a huge amount of time while being boring and mostly unrelated to what turns out to be the main plot lines involving dragons and Kennit.  These chapters are further dragged down by their tendency to be written from young Malta’s perspective, a character just as manipulative as Kennit without even the excuse of being raised in bad circumstances.  Her obsession with trivialities mirrors the content of all the sections in Bingtown.  Punctuating this all are myriad chapters written from the sea serpents perspective which are all almost identical and uninteresting recountings of the serpents’ anxiety about their future.  The trilogy drifts into ennui during this stretch until near the midpoint of book three, a victim of Hobb’s decompressed style.

Hobb manages to suck all urgency out of the events in Bingtown even as a war rages.  Instead she introduces more damaged goods in the form of Serilla, a character that never really goes anywhere, and the political machinations among the factions of the city.  A better writer may have made this interesting, in this case it merely distracts from the more compelling events occurring on the sea.  It is also at this point that the dragons start to show up to ruin yet another book as Hobb’s pet creations.  The plight of the dragon race never stirs any sympathy from me and is not helped by the last survivor of this ancient race having more in common with wildlife and lacking any nobility of character whatsoever.  Furthermore, all the secrets that I actually wanted to read about were not handed out; namely, what happened to the Elderlings and why are the dragons reduced to such a state in the first place.

As the book ends, Hobb contrives to have all the main characters meet on the open seas at the same time.  At this point the demands of the plot have left most character development strangled.  Kennit is offed with no fanfare or great insight. Althea blithely gives up the liveship the quest for which had driven her through three books.  Malta gives up on her father and Wintrow continues to lick Kennit’s boots up until the time the latter man dies and suddenly Wintrow becomes the consummate leader able to command the loyalty of all the pirates.  Oh yeah and the dragon swooped in to save Bingtown from dying of boredom.  Amber, the aforementioned prophet, is just as useless as the Fool from her other trilogy, always pining about whether she was shepherding history correctly and yet never doing anything at all.

But perhaps worst of all is how humanity just accepts the yoke of dragons despite their only exposure to the race an arrogant character driven mostly by animal lusts and a constant need for ego stroking.  We already had plenty of that in the Satrap of Jamailia.  There were a couple points where the humans could have ended the dragons, but the idea is not even contemplated.  Again, Hobb ruins a series with dragons that she apparently thinks are much cooler than they actually are.

In summary, this trilogy would be much improved by being half as long and having the dragon plots excised.  The trilogy ends with the characters attending balls and quite content with their servitude to the dragons that manages to trivialize much of what happened over the course of two thousand some pages.  I believe this is the last of Robin Hobb that I shall read.

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