I don’t read a lot of what I call “pure” fantasy, but the Realm of Elderlings series does to me what no other book/series other than the Dark Tower and, to a lesser extent, Harry Potter and A Song of Ice and Fire have managed—it costs me my sleep because I need to know how it ends, so I either keep reading way past my bedtime, or I can’t sleep because I’m playing through all possible scenarios in my head.
The Liveship Traders is the second sub-series in the realm of the Elderlings, an overview and the recommended reading order of which can be found here. While it does not continue the adventures of Fitz, whom we got to know in the Farseer trilogy, it is chronologically the next series to tackle. It is set in the same universe, but if you haven’t read the first sub-series, don’t fret—the narratives don’t overlap at all, not even geographically. If you have read the Farseer trilogy and are either tempted to skip ahead to Tawny Man to continue with the same cast of characters, or didn’t like it and want to drop the rest of the series, please don’t—you’ll miss out on one of the best female protagonists I’ve ever come across, and a self-contained series that I thought superior to the Farseer one in every conceivable way. A familiar character will make an appearance, and a lot of the questions about the Elderlings left unanswered by the previous books are finally resolved.
The short reviews of the individuals book in the series below are completely spoiler-free and won’t give away anything, even if you haven’t read the preceding volume.
Author: Robin Hobb
Title: Ship of Magic
Year of publication: 1998
Page count: 896
Nautical fantasy is already something pretty rare and original, but I absolutely loved the premise of this book: Trader families go into debt for generations to buy an expensive liveship built of magic wizardwood—once three generations of captains have died on its decks, the figurehead quickens to life, filled with the memories and wisdom of the three family members, and will sail only for its kin. Throw in pirates, an amazing heroine, well-rounded villains, and mysterious sea serpents, and you’ve got the start of a series that, to me, already promises much more than the Farseer trilogy did after the first book.
Maybe it’s the alternating point of views, but despite being, admittedly, not a very plot-driven book, it was still a page-turner. It took me maybe a fifth to get into it, but Hobb knows how to world-build, and once she’s woven it, she’ll fill it with incredible characters and pull you right in. A book experience this immersive is rare, for me; sometimes I thought I could smell sea water.
Author: Robin Hobb
Title: The Mad Ship
Year of publication: 1999
Page count: 906
It’s always hardest to review the middle book of a trilogy, because it’s usually an in media res narrative with no beginning and no conclusion. The middle books normally no longer have all the excitement of a new world, but they also don’t have that big rush to the final climax yet… but with that said, I loved this installment. The story doesn’t flat out or climax too soon – it’s a steady uphill journey to what’s gonna come next, and it’ll leave you wanting more. This is a very dynamic book—everything and everyone is in motion, and the storylines are starting to converge (or weave back together). The world-building has been realized—not everything has been revealed, but just enough of it to get you hooked and allow a glimpse at the bigger picture. Small hints of what’s coming are dropped along the way, which in other works (or with other writers) could be detrimental to the suspense, but the way Hobb does it, rather than take away from the story, the foreshadowing enhances it and draws you further in. So far I am quite intrigued by the whole overarching mythology that is emerging—it’s such an original take, I dare say nothing even remotely of the sort has ever been written before.
It’s a testament to Robin Hobb’s writing that the POV chapters I was looking forward to the most in this one were the ones I liked the least in the first book – she really knows how to make your feelings take a 180° turn, and the character development is spectacular. That’s the thing about her books, they’re very character-driven, and she creates the most wonderful, well-rounded and vibrant characters that keep surprising you.
Author: Robin Hobb
Title: Ship of Destiny
Year of publication: 2000
Page count: 912
Everything just came together so beautifully in the end, and it left me both content, but also yearning for more, not because the story’s ending isn’t satisfying, but because I truly grew to love these characters and was sad to let them go.
In this third volume I realized why it definitely makes sense to have read the Farseer trilogy first, but I don’t think it’s a prerequisite at all. And if you by chance didn’t love the Farseer trilogy, I still say give this one a go, because it feels completely different. For one, you get multiple point of views, which contributes to a more varied and suspenseful narrative. And, as much as I like Fitz, the Liveship Traders boast one of the best female heroines I’ve ever read, and the character development of each and every one of the characters in this second Elderlings series is a pure delight to read.
The “twist” caught me entirely by surprise. I think it could probably be easily foreseen, but I read with the most wholesome pleasure, without overanalyzing, going where the story took me, like a boat on a river. The reveal is essential for wrapping up loose plot threads, and everything gets resolved in a most satisfying way, yet the consequences for the Realm are extensive and will definitely have a massive impact on the following books.