Yet again failing to move away from the Sci-fi/Fantasy genre (though this time I have an excuse. We were visiting my girlfriend’s mum when I finished The Secret River, and there’s not too much in the hoard of books she and her brother left behind when they moved out that aren’t!), and from author’s I haven’t read before.
Hobb’s world is unique, as far as I’ve found, in that although she’s now on her fourth series set there (Ship of Magic is the first book in the second of these), they all stand alone from one another, and to the extent that there are only passing references to the ones that come before and after in each. The focus of this series is far to the south of where the Farseer Trilogy (The first, and only of the series I’ve hitherto read) takes place, though most of the plot takes place at sea, rather than on land. The titular Ship of Magic is a Liveship, which is exactly what it sounds like: a ship fashioned from a magic wood that can, under certain circumstances,come to life and communicate with the world through its figurehead. Not only are a number of the ships important characters in their own right (including two that are point of view characters), but control over them (yes, that is as morally suspect as it sounds, and that point is raised by a number of characters) is a major driving force for much of the story.
The plot, once it gets going after a rather slow start, is certainly engaging, and the slow revelations that there may be more to the world than the characters, let alone the readers, know is definitely interesting. However, Hobb’s strength is definitely her ability to create characters that you absolutely hate. She did in the Farseer Trilogy, but a number of the characters in Ship of Magic simply blow those out of the water. The best (or maybe worst? I can’t decide) example is Kyle, whose every action and every line of dialogue makes you want to throw the book across the room in frustration at the sheer unfairness of it all. The only character I can think of that I hate as much as Kyle (that I’m supposed to hate, of course. There are several that I loath for other reasons), is Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter. However, unlike Umbridge, Kyle does, in occasionally flashes, show that he is capable of being sympathetic. While brief, these flashes underline that in contrast to Rowling’s straw-person antagonist, the reader’s aversion to Kyle is borne mostly out of the Hobb’s writing. We hate him because of the fact that he antagonises most of the point of view characters, whose thoughts we are getting. Until of course he becomes a slaver, at which point he loses almost all remaining grounds for sympathy.
If you like fantasy, then you could do far worse than to read Robin Hobb, and the less fantastic works she penned under a different name, Megan Lindholm that I’ve read are good as well. As I said, most of her series can standalone, so as long as you start with the first one, you should be fine. Of the ones I’ve read, I think the writing is better in Ship of Magic, though the plot is perhaps better in Farseer, although that may be simply because it’s more in line with traditional quest narrative.