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Liveship Traders Trilogy by Robin Hobb

Liveship Traders Trilogy
A review by Nalini Haynes

I wrote this review in 2016 and left it in drafts. With uni, disability discrimination and assaults, this review of the Liveship Traders Trilogy was forgotten until now. My tastes have changed. The books are a dim memory after the past 2 years of hell.

In the beginning…

Althea Vestrit is the younger daughter of Bingtown Liveship Traders. She defies the relatively new conventions of women staying at home, removing themselves from business and not sailing. Although Bingtown women used to be equals, newfound wealth of the town coupled with Jamailian constructs of gender and wealth (Jamailia being the capital of the empire to which they defer), women are becoming part Victorian-era, part 1950s-era bits of fluff who ‘do not work’. (There’s no mention of the 1950s solution: Valium.)

Althea rebels, her heart being with her father, Ephron, and their ship, the Vivacia. Ephron took Althea to sea with him, teaching her how to run the business and how to captain a ship. She expects to inherit Vivacia upon her father’s death but, for the Vivacia‘s last trip, her father stays at home, ill, while her sister’s husband, Kyle Haven, captains the ship.

Returning to Bingtown

The Vivacia returns to Bingtown just in time for Ephron to die on the Vivacia‘s deck, bringing her to life. Instead of allowing Althea to inherit, her mother has connived against Althea because she believes Althea should behave like a ‘respectable (new) Bingtown woman’ and be married, live on shore and share Rona’s hardships instead of having the life she loves.

Kyle’s abuse alienates Althea; his intent to control her in the future causes a family rift. Althea flees the family home with nothing but the clothes on her back and what’s in her pockets.

Amber, a wood carver with powers of prophecy, befriends Althea and helps her procure clothing so she can ship out as a teenage boy on another vessel. Althea’s goal is to prove her worth so she can reclaim the Vivacia.

Fleeing captivity

After Althea leaves Bingtown, Kyle has the ship fitted out to be a slaveship, breaking all convention and causing great suffering to the ship who is now alive.

Kennit, a pirate captain with aspirations to kingship, visits an island to receive a prophecy. He bargains with his second in command, Sorcor: they agree to pursue liveships with the intent of capturing one and, for every liveship they pursue, they will pursue a slaveship to free the human cargo.

Folk living in the Pirate Isles love Kennit for freeing the slaves, some of whom are their kin. Kennit bestows the captured ship on the more capable of his crew and citizens, claiming half their subsequent booty.

Gendered expectations

Women are discussed from the point of view of society’s expectations, to how they respond to their ability to have children, to their personal agency.

Rape is an issue in this story: some people are raped but it’s as graphic as in Game of Thrones. Even as a pirate, Kennet stands against rape, enforcing better conduct from his men but then he rapes Althea. This causes readers some concern but I felt the rape is not gratuitous even though it was out of character: Althea struggles with the aftermath, regains agency in her life and overcomes. For some readers, Althea could be a heroic role model.

Kyle Haven is an idiot. I want to smack him for most of the trilogy. His wife is either late to awaken or perhaps suffers from Stockholm Syndrome, developed because of society’s and her husband’s expectations.

Althea’s mother stands for so many mothers who want their daughters to have the life they had, for good or ill. They want their daughters to suffer as they have, not to experience risk, associated triumph and potential joy. Both women develop as characters through this trilogy, working towards a more accepting and genuinely loving relationship.

Although Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy is her first work in this world, I felt a stronger connection with the Liveship Trader Trilogy. This trilogy focuses on women, particularly in relation to their family, although for most of the trilogy Althea is far from home. Like most ‘lost children’ (refer to John Bradshaw’s books on counselling and self-help) Althea is co-dependent with her family even when she’s apart from them. Until she resolves her issues.


The Liveship Trader trilogy is an engaging fantasy, enjoyable for its surface story and for the deeper exploration of social issues. There is so much to love about this story; although trigger warnings are important and some readers may approach this story with caution, the Liveship Trader Trilogy is an excellent example of fantasy, of an analogy: it tells a great story at the front door while truths and deeper issues slip in through the window. Can recommend.

Please note: I wrote this review 3 or more years ago and lost it in the bowels of DMZ. My reviews have changed since then but it’s been too long since I read the trilogy to alter this review.

Rating: recommended
ISBN: 9780007514465
ISBN 10: 0007514468
Publisher: HarperVoyager (HarperCollins) and/or Random Penguins
Format: epub, 896 pages (according to the publisher)

Nalini is an award-winning writer and artist as well as managing editor of Dark Matter Zine.


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