Over the years I have been asked time and time again for recommendations of female authors in the fantasy genre. Although there are many excellent female authors in the fantasy genre today, my go to answer is always Robin Hobb. There are few authors whom write beautiful prose the way that Hobb does while at the same time emotionally destroy you, as she is not very kind to her characters. In my humble opinion, The Liveship traders trilogy is the best example of Robin Hobbs work and it is my favorite series written by her. This series does take place in the Realm of the Elderlings world, but the series can absolutely be read on its own with little to no input from her other series. I’m usually not a fan of stories that take place on ships, but with this gem in the fantasy genre, Robin Hobb has changed my mind and I will be rereading this series for years to come!
The Liveship Traders series revolves around the fortunes of the Vestrit family and their liveship Vivacia. A liveship is a ship made out of Wizardwood from the Rain Wilds and contains a magical substance, which gives the ship magical powers. When three generations of a ship’s owners die on board, a liveship “quickens”, meaning that the ship awakens and becomes a sentient being with all the memories of the ancestors who have contributed to the ship’s quickening. The Vestrit family is still in debt to the Rain Wild Trader family from generations ago and the only way to trade with the Rain Wilds is on a liveship who can traverse the harsh seas. The story takes place in Bingtown, where political turmoil could lead to an all out war. The current leader of Jamailia has ignored promises his ancestors have made to the citizens of Bingtown causing outrage and unrest. Also, the threat and influence of Chalced with their slave trade is becoming more popular throughout the world.
We follow several amazing characters throughout the series. The first one is Althea Vestrit, whom is heartbroken when her father Ephron dies on the liveship Vivacia. This death causes Vivacia to “quickens” and awakens her to talk and share information with the crew. Althea is crestfallen when she learns that possession of Vivicia will not pass on to her but her older sister Keffria, who then gives control to her Chalcedean husband Kyle. Kyle will not let Althea sail on the Vivacia without having proved herself on another sailing vessel and produce a ship’s ticket. Thus Althea must prove herself a capable sailor in a world dominated by men.
Next we have Wintrow Vestrit, son of Kyle and Keffria whose only desire is to become a priest and live a life of worship. When Kyle discovers that he can’t captain the liveship as it requires a blood relative of the Vestrit family, Wintrow is summoned and thrust face first into the life of a shipman he never wanted. Along the way Wintrow develops a strong and powerful relationship with Vivicia and becomes a drive force for the entire series. You can’t help but cheer for Wintrow and at the same time feel distraught as Robin Hobb puts Wintrow through the gauntlet over the course of this series. You will not recognized the person he will become.
The final character I would like to touch on is the pirate Kennit. He has goals of becoming more than a pirate as he moves to unite all the pirate isles and have him named King. Kennit makes it a goal to pursue the slave ships and throw the slavers to the sharks. Once Kennit frees these slave ships, he realizes that the former slaves will be looking for work and he has them join his crew. Kennit has a bigger desire in mind than the freeing of slaves, a liveship of his own. Kennit is probably the most mysterious and interesting character you will find in this series learning about his past was brilliant and shocking.
I would now like to talk about what makes Robin Hobb such a special writer. Robin Hobb has the ability to write amazing characters in a believable world and every action, thought, and belief they have seems real down to the most minute detail. She knows which buttons to push and when to dial back the drama. She will take her time in approaching world-building and the building of tensions methodically across the hundreds of pages this series will ask of you. Although there is action in this series, the slow burn feel of the book along with family drama, political backstabbing, and secrets are the focal points and they are performed exceptionally well. Any fan of Robin Hobb will tell you that she is very cruel to her characters and this series is no exception. Do not come into this thinking that everything will always have a happy ending and there is a fine line between the good and bad characters. Each character brings their own perspectives, prejudices, and beliefs to the table and they all experience various shades of gray.
My only caution to future readers is that this series is long! What I mean by that is that each book is longer than seven hundred pages and there are big chunks of page time that can feel very dragged out. You also have to love slow burn type of book and characters being the main attraction. Fans of Tad Williams, Patrick Rothfuss, and the Realm of the Elderlings will love this series as much as I have. Robin Hobb writes some of the most beautiful prose you can find in the fantasy genre and no one should miss it!