Ship of Magic, by Robin Hobb
Ship of Magic, Book 1 of the Liveship Traders Trilogy*, came to me the way that all Robin Hobb books come to me: I’ve been waiting to read it for years. I ration Robin Hobb’s books because I want to live in a world where there is always a Robin Hobb book that I haven’t yet read. Pure escapism, she is the best prolific epic (and epoch) fantasy writer that I’m aware of and fantasy is my default/goto when I just want to disappear for a while. Plus, I’ve been noodling around with an idea for a fantasy pirate story set in the world of The Book of Bastards: Curse, my most recent manuscript to begin the painful journey across publisher’s desks. So there I was, searching for a reliably good read and the gods reminded me of Hobb’s Ship of Magic. Doncha love it when books come to you that way?
For the record, I’ve never met Robin Hobb and I paid the going rate for the ebook version (hella cheap).
Ship of Magic is a trove of lessons in the craft, so let us begin!
You know the rule of the first page hook? The requirement that the author somehow tantalize the reader in the first paragraph while simultaneously foreshadowing the sheer awesomeness of everything that is to follow while concurrently packing those first few pages with zero backstory but enough plot/story and character to make the reader fall in — yes, I think it’s stupid too (c.f., Ransom Reviews: Turtles all the way Down for the best way to open a book).
Ms. Hobb thumbed her nose at this “rule” and we’re all better for it. Ship of Magic doesn’t start with a bang, though it’s not tedious, it starts with the same rhythm it has on page 200: no hook. Hobb writes with enough confidence that it doesn’t matter. She’s also sold enough books that she’s free of any need to impress the intern at the publisher who is barely paid for the task of reading manuscripts and spinning off rejection letters (but I’m not bitter).
Epic fantasy is meant to be long and its joy comes in suffering with the characters so that on the last page of book 1, we feel that we’ve been there, been through it, and have earned our ticket to book 2.
More often in fantasy than in other genres, there’s a point where something weird happens — stepping through the portal into a different world — a transition of some sort. These transitions usually seem so cheesy: “Really? There’s a whole world behind the armoire? Sure there is.” I like the way Connie Willis* implements time travel, it’s not believable anyway so why bother to try? Just put the McGuffin behind a curtain and get on with it. Well, I don’t have that in me, and in my Time Weavers series*, Simon, the daft genius, experiences the intersections of different realities, those points where wildly varying futures can blossom into reality. I probably spent a month coming up with the right metaphor to carry that McGuffin: he sees the realities of other timelines as if they’re through panes of glass and moving from one to another is like passing through a window including the greenish edges of glass sheets.
In Ship of Magic (this might be a minor spoiler so shield your eyes if you’re sensitive), ships made of the wood of certain trees come alive after several generations germinating while under sail. Hobb presents the transition from plain wooden ship to living, breathing (and childlike) Liveship from the point of view of a young woman who has sailed on this ship most of her life. The ship, Vivacia, comes alive through the bowsprit figurehead — the carving of a person or animal at the prow — and uses metaphors that are mixed just right:
“The paint flaked away from the coiling lock at her touch. The feel of the hair against her hand was strange. It gave way to her touch, but the carved locks were all of a piece rather than individual hairs. She knew a moment of unease. Then her awareness of the Vivacia flooded through her, heightened as never before. It was like warmth, yet it was not a sensation of the skin. Nor was it the heat of whiskey in one’s gut. This flowed with her blood and breath throughout her body.”
The hardest part of writing a novel for many of us (ahem) is the muddle — err, I mean the middle: That point in the book when it’s hard for the author to tell if everything is set up — are the characters all motivated? Are they developed enough that the readers are sympathetic to their faults, appreciative of their strengths, and can gauge what they’re likely to do? I ended up condensing 30 pages of the muddle of my first novel, The God Patent*, into a three sentence paragraph when Darrend at the San Francisco Writers Workshop told me that I could convey the tedium of a character’s life without imposing that tedium on the reader. In Ship of Magic the middle is thick and rich and builds character in scenes that lead to scenes in a seamless causal chain.
When I teach the craft, I like to say that every scene must, and every paragraph should, accomplish at least two of three things: develop character, plot, and/or milieu. In Ship of Magic, I felt like Hobb was just developing characters and/or milieu. Not bad, 2 of 3, right? But where’s the plot? Yeah, it emerged without me being aware of it.
As the characters pay their dues, learn from the experience of bad decisions — and, dude, she is good at imposing that feeling of “don’t do it!” in the guts of her readers — the plot edges forward and comes together. In many instances, I didn’t see how some scenes contributed plot momentum until 40, 50 pages later. Epoch, not just epic satisfaction (and I apologize for that painful alliteration).
I can’t stand good and evil that are too obvious. Truly evil characters believe in their ends even if they think the means might be dodgy — the only Saurons are lunatics, and lunatics are tough to deliver in fiction (but ideal for memoir!). The villain in Ship of Magic is a bad guy who does good things for bad reasons and suffers intense self-doubt. On page 25:
“He would never trust to luck that his luck would not desert him.”
and on page 111:
“He’d humiliated himself yet again, and as always it was his own fault. He was stupid, stupid, stupid, and his only hope of surviving was in not letting anyone else know how stupid he was. … Why did his highest hopes always have to turn to his deepest humiliations?”
One last thing that fascinated me. Sometimes what is spoken is different from what is said. That is, the words exchanged in dialog might be far removed from the meaning exchanged by the characters. The trick for a writer is to convey the meaning. What do you do when the conversation itself is boring? There are lots of tricks, describe the thoughts of the PoV character within beats in the dialog or internal monologue, and so on. In Ship of Magic, Hobb uses a sort of play-by-play commentary, like a radio sports commentator, here’s a tidbit:
“Keffria noticed that whenever Jani took over the conversation, which was often, the little stories and anecdotes she told served to illustrate the wealth and power of her family. They were not told braggingly; there was no intent to humble the Vestrits or their table.”
Sure, it’s an easy enough point to make by “showing,” that is, by delivering the conversation, but that would take a boring page or so.
< Frammice the rest of the way down >
*Links in this article marked with an asterisk are “affiliate links” which means that I get a small commission from Amazon if you choose to buy the book from them (it doesn’t affect the price you pay). I do not consider the links an endorsement of Amazon — shop according to your principles! That said, I recognize irony when I implement it. Without the tiny extra income generated by affiliate links these reviews would not be produced because, when I dove into this racket that we call being a novelist, I vowed that I would never write for free. Damn it!
And finally, if you’d like to receive my famous** Ransom’s Notes, sign up here and, if you ask, I will provide you a free copy of my novel The 99% Solution* because, in the spirit of The 99%, no one will be denied their right to read it for lack of material wealth! (**they’re not really famous).