The Mad Ship by Robin Hobb begins where book one of the Liveship Trader’s trilogy, “Ship of Magic” left off. Althea Vestrit, daughter of the late captain Vestrit, continues on a personal journey to retake Vivacia, her stolen live-ship. Wintrow still resides aboard that ship, which is now over-taken by pirates. Malta remains determined to find and save her father Kyle, whom was also was left aboard the Vivacia; Keffria is struggling to take control of the family; and as before, everything is essentially collapsing and crumbling around the once solid family. Though the hope that once existed for the Vestrit’s has been, for the most part, extinguished, the family unit still struggles to prevail and restore itself. This all, of course, leads to yet another lengthy series of drama, politics, live-ships, and yes, self discovery. This time, however, the fate of not only the Vestrit’s hang in the balance, but the whole of Bingtown itself.
To begin, I have to say that this novel was a mixed bag for me – and in many ways (and for several reasons), was quite a disappointment. Although Mad Ship began with a bang and had quite a compelling and engaging start, I felt that it all quickly tapered off into an abyss of repetition. Upon approaching around the midway mark, things became bogged down and heavy. The characters kept saying the same things over and over – the writing became redundant – the natural flow and evolution of the story, for me, came to a halt. There were times when Hobb would go on and on about a particular topic, stretching out what could have been said in two paragraphs into a few chapters. Because of the overall slowness of the plot and story, there were several occasions where continuing felt more like a duty, rather than an enjoyment.
Another issue I had, was the imbalance of time given to each character. Through-out the novel, chapters would switch between characters and their situations, giving the reader a lot to take in. This was great – until suddenly a character and their story would simply vanish. By the time the character was mentioned again (many chapters later), my interest level had dropped. This really killed the experience. Another fault, was the disjointed story. For instance, while the conclusion was actually quite interesting and enjoyable, it lacked a connection with the rest of the novel. Looking back at the majority of Mad Ship, the reading experience was quite strange. About three quarters of it was this long, drawn out soap opera (complete with bitter, whiny characters), and yet suddenly, there was this intriguing fantasy piece pasted in at the end. It was all a bit odd, and for me, the flow of the novel felt broken.
Finally, at least in the complaint department, was the lack of description. Though I admit, I am a sucker for lush, flowery, poetic writings that paint surreal and vivid pictures, I don’t really think that’s the issue here. As a person whom’ is familiar with Hobb’s work (and enjoy most of what I’ve read), I didn’t come in expecting floods of archaic depictions. Instead, I expected the comfortable, Hobb-esque styled writing that I’ve grown to enjoy. Unfortunately however, the further I progressed into the novel, the stronger my disappointment grew with the actual writing itself. For whatever reason, it seemed as though Hobb had acquired a severe case of “tell rather than show” when writing Mad Ship, and instead of describing the events – and describing the situation and surroundings – actually painting the picture – it was all very simplistic and dull. Person A did this; person B did that; this happened; that happened. I’m not sure what was going on here, but the style was so dry that I actually felt like falling asleep. Where was the artistic element?
Though my experience with Mad Ship, wasn’t nearly as positive as expected, I can’t say that all was a amiss. While I certainly didn’t enjoy the characters as much as I did with the Farseer trilogy, there was still a great deal of unexpected development – especially from characters I never really cared for from the previous installment. For instance, there was Malta, who’s evolution was both realistic and intriguing. Hobb did an excellent job transitioning her from little girl to young woman, and by the end of Mad Ship, I began to feel a sort of sympathy for her – one that I could never quite obtain because of her childish, bratty attitude. Reyn (Malta’s destined husband), was also a pleasant surprise, as he began to show a new, more relateable side. Lastly, but certainly not least, was Kennit. Though he had already grown on me by the end of “Ship of Magic,” the growing continued through-out this entire novel, and strangely, Captain Kennit has gradually evolved into one of my favorite characters of the series thus far. His complex and conflicting personality was a refreshing element that added a much needed realism (and humanity, though a darker form) to the novel.
With that said (and I hate to say it), Mad Ship for me, was an overall disappointment. While there were a handful of moments, especially toward the end, there was far too much filler, and the slow moving plot made reading this 800 + page novel more of a chore than anything. From the disjointed story, to the lack of description, to the over-all lack of progression — Mad Ship failed to ever really pull me in. Though I truly consider myself to be a fan of Hobb, and will forever adore her Farseer trilogy, I plan to take a break from her later works to read something a bit lighter of heart — for there’s only so much one can take in the realm of misery and politics (at least for me). When going into a fantasy novel, I expect certain things — and in this case, almost none of those things were met.
Though Mad Ship for me was clear a disappointment, I can’t and won’t say that it should be avoided, especially if one has already connected with the characters. Besides, my opinion is just that, and in the grand scheme of things, we all know what they say about opinions! So, with that said, if you’ve read the first installment and enjoyed it — then by all means, continue on. The characters are still here; the idea is still in place; the live-ships and serpents are aplenty. But if you’re looking for the same heart, soul, and intrigue that graced the pages of “Ship of Magic,” then there’s a fair chance that you won’t find it here — at least to the same extent. Instead, you may find the same bleak, gray, slow moving world I discovered when delving into this tome sized novel. Overall, this experience wasn’t a positive one. I was expecting so much more, and Mad Ship simply failed to deliver.
(2 out of 5)