Althea Vestrit is a young woman from an Old Trader family of Bingtown on The Cursed Shores. Her family have a Liveship, Vivacia, that has yet to 'quicken', ie. come alive. But the time is close. Althea's father, Ephron, lies dying at home and his death will be the third generation of Vestrits needed to quicken the ship. Althea hopes that when her father dies she will be captain of the ship and supplant the vicious Kyle Haven, her elder sister, Keffria's, husband. Things do not go according to plan. Her father is brought down to die on the ship and Althea discovers that the ship has been given to Keffria and thus Kyle remains captain. Althea is devastated as it is her that her father has been grooming to take over the ship, but in her absence he's been persuaded to change his will.
However, a blood family member must remain on board to 'connect' with the ship. Althea presumes that will be her. But again she is wrong. Kyle and Keffria have brought their elder son, thirteen year old, Wintrow, home from the monastry where he was preparing to be a priest of Sa. He too is devastated as this is not what he wants. Wintrow is a quiet, sensible, steady boy, not adventurous or rowdy. He tries to reason with his parents and grandmother but none of them understand, least of all his violent father.
After Elphron's death and Vivacia's quickening the family is torn assumder. Althea, completely undone by what she considers a family betrayal, walks out. Wintrow is forced against his will to sail on the ship. He's drawn to Vivacia, in the shape of the figurehead of the ship, but hated by his father and the rest of the crew. He has to grow up very quickly and learn how to survive in this adult world that nothing has prepared him for.
Meanwhile things back in the Vestrit family home are going from bad to much worse. The family has lost much of its wealth due to new trader families moving to Bingtown. They bring with them the scourge of slave ownership, something the Old Traders have never approved of. Like all Liveship owners the family made a bargain with a family who live in The Rain Wild, up river, in order to get the wizardwood to build their ship. It's a dangerous, magical area, and the trader families pay a high price for their proximity to it... deformed babies etc. Debts for the ships must be paid. 'Blood or coin'. If the family cannot get together the money, the Rain Wild family will take a member of the Vestrit family. Keffria's daughter, Malta, a spoilt brat, has no idea of the danger she's in by rebelling as she does.
Althea has taken off in the belief that she can turn herself into a proper sailor by sailing on a hunting ship, and thus get Vivacia back from Kyle. Wintrow is in purgatory, unable to please his father whatever he does. A pirate, Kennit, to the south of Bingtown wants to own a Liveship and make himself king of the pirates. A wrecked, 'mad' Liveship on the coast near Bingtown is attracting unwanted attention but gains a friend. And the sea serpents, once very rare, are suddenly too plentiful and, strangely, moving north. What is going on?
It's been several years since I read anything by Robin Hobb and that was the last book in her 'Farseer' trilogy. The Liveship Trader books are set on the same world and connect. I'm not sure how yet but gather all will be made clear eventually. I'd forgotten what a brilliant writer she is. No author could produce a book like this and *not* be brilliant to be honest. There are so many layers, so many different points of view and plot threads to keep an eye on that you'd just have to be some kind of genius otherwise you simply couldn't do it. But it's not just that, it's that her writing is wonderful. It grips you by the throat and doesn't let up. At the end of it you feel like you've been through the mill several times: exhausted and wrung out.
Because here's the thing with these books - they are not a cheerful read. If you want that, choose another author. Robin Hobb is *mean* to her characters. They suffer. The torment is almost unbearable. I have an over-sensitive reaction to injustice so at times this book was pergatory for me. I desperately wanted several people to get their come-uppance, some do but others I fear I will have to wait for subsequent books for that to happen.
Which again proves the quality of Hobb's writing. Because there are no saints in these books. Althea is pig-headed and stubborn, Wintrow is actually 'saintly' but also pig-headed and never takes the straight road when a more diffcult one is available. Brashen Trell, probably my favourite character, is the subject of a 'Will they, won't they?' question all the way through with Althea, but he too is stubborn, inclined to drink too much and enjoy illicit substances.
I think there was only one aspect of the story I found a bit superfluous and that's the scenes with the sea serpents. They were few and far between but didn't feel clear to me, but I fully understand that in later books they may play a much bigger role and it was not a problem. I will say too that this book is not really a stand-alone. It's quite clear the story continues on and many things are not resolved. Not that that is a problem for me as I fully intend to read on once I have my breath back. My head is so full of these characters at the moment, the world of the Bingtown Traders and the seas around them is so real that it almost feels like it must exist somewhere.
To my delight I've discovered that Robin Hobb's latest four books are a continuation of this trilogy. They're called The Rain Wild Chronicles and presumably deal with the magical and dangerous area that we only get glimpses of in The Ship of Magic. I honestly can't wait and plan to continue reading through the year until I get up to date.