Jenny's Library

Team Sea Serpent

Posted on: April 9, 2013

A not-quite-review of Robin Hobb’s Ship of Magic.



cover image for Ship of MagicThere is this thing I do every year, whenever the LA Times Festival of Books rolls around, where I try to read at least one book by every author I may be interested in seeing.

So, for example, if I hear of a young adult author, or fantasy or science fiction author, that is coming, but whose books I have not read yet, I will make sure to request one or two from the library and see what I think.  That way if I go to a panel they are on and spend an hour listening to them talk about their process or the themes in their books, I have some idea about their work.*

Which is how I found myself attempting to read Robin Hobb’s Ship of Magic.  Despite my better judgement and the advice of friends whose opinions I trust.

I didn’t even make it through the first 100 pages.  This is possibly because none of the characters make any bit of sense and the most interesting one so far is the sea serpent who tried to convince some poor sailor to toss himself overboard.**

The pirate Kennit is simply stupid and childish, breaking and stealing things just to show he can.  Which would be fine if he weren’t a captain. One setting out on some clever master scheme at that.  Greedy and petty I could understand, but messing with magic just to show who has the bigger dick, especially when it’s magic he sought out as part of a very detailed and convoluted plan to become a pirate king of some sort…well, let’s just say I wouldn’t fear him taking over if I sailed those waters.

Regarding Kennit’s favorite prostitute Etta, the less said the better.  I do, however, feel compelled to point out that she’s really bad at reading Johns and giving them what they want, considering that her livelihood depends on those skills.  Because yes, they are skills, and any writer who doesn’t show them as such has no idea how sex work works.  But then, I’ve read an embarrassing number of mainstream, popular, unrealistic romance novels that have a better grasp on how prostitution works than this book does.

illustration for Ship of Magic

As for Althea….what in the world is she doing admiring the cloth she bought instead of scheming or pouring over the charts she was allowed to keep?    Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for pretty dresses, the problem is that the author has stated that the ship is vastly more important to Althea than any silly ball, but shows us something completely different.  More to the point, why would someone sensible enough to know how to store trade goods properly (as she is doing when we first meet her)  be handling silk in such a way that would cause anything, even her “rough hands” to “snag on” the expensive fabric?  Even assuming she’s just not thinking properly, a definite possibility for her age and situation, wouldn’t she at least feel stupid for having done so, rather than simply worrying about pumicing her hands when she got to shore?

I will grant you that Kyle Haven, who is captain instead of Althea, is supposed to be lacking in sense.  That’s meant to make us root for Althea, I suppose.  (Or, more likely, the demoted  first mate and potential love interest Brashen Trell.)  It doesn’t really say much for her ailing father, Ephron Vestrit, though – as he’s the one who made Haven captain and sent them both out on the same ship.  Especially considering how much is gambling on Vestrit literally dying on the ship’s deck, the patriarch’s decision to send the liveship out now, without him, has got to be the stupidest idea in the whole 60 pages I managed to read.  It’s no wonder the family fortune is dwindling, if that’s how good he is at making decisions.

The most sensible person is the Lady of the House, Ronica Vestrit, who is rather fed up with all this liveship nonsense.  At which point I realized that so was I, and stopped reading.

illustration by Olaus Magnus from Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, 1555

*Also, so that I don’t end up kicking myself years later when I realize that I totally could have gotten that book signed! but didn’t! because I had no idea how awesome that author was!  Or, so that I don’t end up finding them really fascinating as a speaker, deciding I must! have! a signed copy of their book! and shelling out cash for an expensive hardcover, only to realize later that I don’t really like them as a writer.

** Somebody please tell me that the sea serpents win.

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2 Responses to "Team Sea Serpent"

The sea serpents totally win. (For values of “win” that equal “everything in this universe is kind of depressing,” anyway. But, yes, win.)

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