Ship of Magic is one of those books I'd hesitate to call "slow." The word simply doesn't do it justice. "Ponderous" might be a better word. Even "glacial," perhaps. It's not quite "soporific"--my irritation with the characters did a pretty good job at keeping me awake-so personally, I'd plump for "mindnumbingly tedious."
Ship is something of a doorstopper--over 800 pages--but that's not what I hold against it. I like my books plump, maybe even portly, as long as there is sufficient action to excuse the length. The problem, to my mind, is that so little occurs in the book that I can summarize the entire plot in about a paragraph, maybe two. Worse still, apparently these 800 or so pages are only there to whet the reader's appetite (hah): no conflicts are resolved, there is no natural denouement, and the disparate stories are never knit together. Instead, the story simply ends abruptly, without warning or logic. I honestly suspect Hobb wrote a 2,000- or 3,000- page monolith and broke it, at random, into separate sections that then became books. While I know that this is the fashion in epic fantasy, I find it not merely irritating but offensive. By stopping in the middle of the story, Hobb is clearly trying to bait her readers to pick up the next book. It is not going to work with me.
One reason that i tend to stay away from epic fantasy is that strongly I believe that each novel should exist as a unit; sequels should be intelligible to new readers and each book should have its own natural plot arc, even if it is part of a larger whole. That did not happen here, and I'm cranky.
This is one of those books that honestly puzzles me; I'm sure it has merit, but that merit utterly escapes me. The story is clearly intended to be a character-driven plot, yet I find the characters' actions illogical and scripted. The cast is large, yet the author clearly despises at least half of the point-of-view characters. While there is no driving plot or action, the characters themselves mainly fail to drive the plot, and merely allow events to push them to and fro.
The jist: as you might have guessed from the title, the story focuses around ships and shipping towns. The world is somewhat unsettled; the current leader of the country is a weak-willed playboy and is letting new customs--such as slavery--to creep into the trader towns. The story centres on the Vestrit family, an old, established trading family. The Vestrits, like many other trading families, have a liveship, a ship made of wizarding wood, which comes alive when three generations of the Vestrit family die onboard. At the beginning of the story, the patriarch, Ephron Vestrit, is getting ready to pop off, and, as he'll be the third death, that means the ship will come alive.
OK, so that actually gives sufficient detail about the world, which partially explains my complaint against the worldbuilding. Now let me introduce you to the cast.
Fair warning. It's going to get cranky and it's going to get profane.
First, we've got Wintrow. I can't think of a more sympathetic way to introduce a character than as a self-righteous little priestling who starts out by--wait for it--lecturing and passing judgment on his superior for being too judgmental. As far as I could tell, the hypocrisy goes unnoticed by the author. It certainly goes noticed by the other character, who praises him for his saintliness. If you think Wintrow is going to improve on further acquaintance, in my opinion, he doesn't. He is a whiny, self-righteous, self-entitled, weak-willed little brat. When things get tough, he starts by patronizing, ups it by whining, and ends by bitching at any person stupid enough to talk to him.
So much for all his self-righteous, self-satisfied self-congratulation on his generalized holiness.
The next character, for your delectation, is the darling Pirate Kennit. Kennit is not just a sociopath; he's an inept one. My understanding of sociopaths is that they don't understand human emotions, but they're awfully good at faking them to manipulate others. Kennit's got the "not understanding" part down; it's the manipulation part he seems a little sketchy on. Fortunately, his reign of terror is propped up by his utterly blind mistress and first mate. Personally, I utterly fail to understand why an author would spend a good quarter of the book writing from the perspective of a sociopathic character they so clearly despise. What enjoyment is the reader supposed to be getting out of this?
Now it's time to get to the major villain of the piece, Kyle. Kyle married into the Vestrit family, and despite his abusive, egotistical, myopic nature, somehow the entire Vestrit family managed to overlook his nature for fifteen years. Mind you, Karl is not unctuous or manipulative. He is so unaware of his mule-headed insanity that he self-righteously defends every abusive action. So how the effing hell could the entire effing Vestrit family have missed that this is a man who routinely beats his son into unconsciousness? And as a sidenote, it's actually not all that easy or safe to "slap" (because that's how his actions are described) someone into unconsciousness. Most of the conflict stems from Kyle gaining power and imposing his will over his family. Personally, I found it ridiculous, improbable, and unpleasant to read about. I don't enjoy reading about an abusive man stifling his family.
Which brings me to Keffria, the air-headed wife of Kyle, and her stupid and controlling mother. I found their reactions to be utterly unrealistic. As far as I've seen, someone as blatantly abusive as Kyle is either immediately seen for what he is or indefinitely excused. Somehow, these two women manage to excuse Kyle for fifteen years--and, even more frighteningly, see him as competent--yet awaken to his true nature as soon as they've placed so much power in his hands that they are at his mercy. Other than plot necessity, I found it all ridiculous. Which, for a character-driven plot, is not a good place to be.
That gets me to Malta, another character that the author clearly despises, and believe me, I sympathise. Malta is a complete and utter spoiled, sociopathic bitch. I spent all of her sections actually hoping that horrific things would happen to her, and I really don't like being placed in that position.
There were really only two characters I could tolerate: Althea and Brashen. Althea is a tomboy, who, in her opinion at least, should have been given control of the ship. She's also spoiled and bitchy, but given the sociopath/ jellyfish level of the rest of the cast, her sections came as a relief. Much of the story deals with the injustices perpetrated against women, and while I am generally bored to tears with this particular theme, I think Althea comes across as a complex and interesting character.
My most massive complaint, in this laundry list of complaints, is something I've already mentioned: this book is not a complete story. It is merely a staging for an epically tedious lengthy saga. Because of this, several interesting scenes, such as the mysterious woman Amber and the mad liveship, are set up...and left utterly incomplete.
I've heard a lot of great things about Robin Hobb, so much of my anger and subsequent nastiness may be due to disappointed expectations. It may be that the book simply appeals to a very different audience, an audience that can become emotionally invested in such flawed characters and find the world immersive rather than tedious. All I know is that I've crossed another author off my list.