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Pirates, liveships, dragons
on 1 March 2006
Robin Hobb is one of the fantasy genre's Good Guys. She may not be doing anything vastly original or profound - but, man, she does it so well. For pure entertainment, there's none better: intricate plotting, knife-edge tension, a sense of place so real you can smell it, and emotional engagement in spades with characters well worth caring about. I haven't turned 900 more enjoyable pages since ... (you can see this one coming, can't you?) the previous instalment.
The setting, slightly outside the normal run of high fantasy, is clearly inspired by colonial America. The pioneer Trader families have prospered for several generations in the bustling entrepot of Bingtown, thanks in large part to commerce undertaken with the Liveships - magical, self-aware vessels built of a particular wood only found upriver from Bingtown, crafted for the Traders by their mysterious kin who live there. But theirs is, naturally, a precarious existence in a frontier land. They are dependent upon trade for much of their food and other supplies, and remain politically subordinate to their former homeland; the society that has developed in response to the challenges is a deeply conservative one; and there are other opportunists who desire the same chance at making their fortune, who are willing to use slave labour to get it.
The concerns, then, are familiar ones; this is all about a society in the painful throes of transition, forced to confront issues of privilege, hierarchy, and access to power. This is played out in a number of ways, one of the most pointed and nuanced being the status of women, as expressed through a diverse range of major characters. There is Althea, who dreams of captaining her family's new Liveship, but finds herself out in the cold when the inheritance goes to her brother-in-law, the new man of the house; her sister Keffria, torn between being a good Trader wife and the desire to protect her children; her mother Ronica, struggling with the loss of status brought on by widowhood; Etta, a former whore who finds a whole new world opening up to her as she learns to read; and many others. All of them are beautifully-drawn, fully-rounded individuals, filled with dreams but mired in mistakes; they are individuals with their own compelling stories who each embody a facet of who women are and can become in this world.
Leaving aside the specifics of the plot, the third and final volume is a more than worthy conclusion to a complex, magical, multi-layered saga - and confirms again my belief that nothing can quite make my heart and my imagination soar like well-written fantasy!