The Liveship Traders Trilogy – Robin Hobb – Review

Jump to: ~ Ship of Magic | The Mad Ship | Ship of Destiny ~

The sixteen books that make up Robin Hobb's Elderling Realm series have recently been reissued under a uniform branding, and, if you want to collect the physical books, they are readily available from most online bookstores. Australian book buyers can also use the search engine Booko to find the cheapest option. If you want to make a difference and support literacy programmes for disadvantaged people, Better World Books is a good site to buy either new or used books from.

The reading order for The Elderling Realm series is:

Assassin’s Apprentice; Royal Assassin; Assassin’s Quest (The Farseer Trilogy - read my review)
Ship of Magic; The Mad Ship; Ship of Destiny (The Liveship Traders Trilogy - reviewed below)
Fool’s Errand; Golden Fool; Fool’s Fate (The Tawny Man Trilogy)
Dragon Keeper; Dragon Haven; City of Dragons; Blood of Dragons (The Rain Wilds Chronicles)
Fool's Assassin; Fool's Quest; Assassin's Fate (Fitz and the Fool Trilogy)

The Liveship Traders

Robin Hobb takes a break from the intense first person narrative of the Farseer Trilogy, and opens Liveship Traders up to multiple viewpoints (professionally contained to one viewpoint per scene).

The effect of the interchanging points of view is that the Liveship series starts off far quicker than Farseer and the storyline races along, pulling the reader in very easily. The differing perspectives are interesting, and Hobb is able to convey a great deal of historical, societal, and environmental information through various characters who know different aspects of the same events, without it sounding explanatory.

The downside of the viewpoint shifts is that the magnificent intensity of Farseer is missing. The reader doesn’t get to stay in one character’s head long enough to form a bond with them, or to relate to the other characters through their perception of them. The result is a lighter read, and easier in many respects, than Farseer. That said, Liveship is very rewarding in its own way.

The Liveship Traders Trilogy consists of Ship of Magic, The Mad Ship, and Ship of Destiny. This Trilogy bridges a gap of time between Hobb's Farseer Trilogy and The Tawny Man Trilogy, which continues the adventures of Fitz and the Fool some years later. Although The Liveship Traders Trilogy is separate from Farseer and Tawny Man, it does feature the Fool in a minor role.

Recommended Reading Order

I enjoyed reading The Liveship Traders after Farseer because of the tiny references to the Farseer events in Liveship, which are as welcoming as old friends. Liveship readers who haven’t read Farseer will not identify the Fool, and will miss some incidental and subtle tangents. But these are minute and unnoticeable if you don’t know about them. (Having written that, I recently read a blog post by someone who read Liveship first, and it is clear that she missed a great deal of the finer details).

My recommendation is that readers who have doubts about whether they will enjoy these books – eg, those who are really battling to get into Assassin’s Apprentice – should read The Liveship Traders Trilogy first – as I mentioned, it’s easier and quicker to get caught up in the action. Following this, I think you will find the Farseer style will come a little easier to you.

But I highly recommend reading the sixteen Elderling Realm books in chronological order, because the story Hobb weaves across all these books is so rich and dense. Liveship makes a nice interlude between the two intense Fitz and Fool series. It is important to read Liveship before reading Tawny Man since a couple of plot threads follow on from Liveship events and will not make sense without fore-knowledge.

If you can manage to stick with Assassin's Apprentice, please do try to read The Farseer Trilogy first. You won't be sorry to have read the books in the intended order.

The correct reading order is:

Assassin’s Apprentice; Royal Assassin; Assassin’s Quest
Ship of Magic; The Mad Ship; Ship of Destiny
Fool’s Errand; Golden Fool; Fool’s Fate
Dragon Keeper; Dragon Haven; City of Dragons; Blood of Dragons
Fool's Assassin; Fool's Quest; Assassin's Fate


There are some minor spoilers ahead for the simple reason that by writing about Book 2 and 3, I’m touching on how Books 1 and 2 end. However, since this is one long story with a vast number of characters and interlinked stories, I don’t feel that what follows gives much of the story away. Proceed with caution if you prefer not to know too much about the books before you read them.

The Liveship Traders Trilogy, by Robin Hobb:

Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb from The Mad Ship by Robin Hobb from Ship of Destiny by Robin Hobb from

Book 1 – Ship of Magic

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Younger daughter Althea Vestrit has been preparing her entire life to witness the awakening of her family Liveship, The Vivacia, and then inherit and captain the vessel she is connected to by her blood. But family problems interfere, and Althea’s beloved father has bestowed Vivacia instead on his eldest daughter, who is completely controlled by her husband Kyle.

The bitter feud between Kyle and Althea deepens as he bans Althea from seeing Vivacia and threatens to lock her up after a family fight. Althea takes off to prove herself a worthy captain for Vivacia, dressing as a boy, and getting work on a whaling ship. Meanwhile Kyle forces his son Wintrow to leave his beloved monastery and sail aboard Vivacia as the blood tie to her "family" that she requires as a quickened Liveship.

The desperate financial situation the Vestrits find themselves in sees Kyle make the dubious decision to use Vivacia to transport slaves – a more profitable commodity than merchandise. But Kyle hasn’t calculated Vivacia’s reaction to the slaves or the fact that a pirate captain has set up a profitable business hunting slave ships, to free the slaves. Nor does he know that the same pirate has designs on a Liveship of his own.

I picked this book up out of trust in Robin Hobb’s writing. I have to admit my exact thoughts were: “A book about talking ships? You’ve got to be kidding.” But Hobb really does weave her unique magic with this concept. I’m not into ships, but I felt the love her seafaring characters had for their vessels. As with Farseer, this is a book about the characters, and the fullness of Hobb’s characters and vividness of her details make this story feel completely realistic and normal, and very exciting.

As I said earlier, the shifting viewpoints are interesting, and the short scenes make this book fly along. I do feel, however, that there are too many variations in viewpoint, from the sea serpents to the main protagonist, and the scenes break far too quickly. I often felt frustrated when a scene came to an end and I couldn’t read on about a character and a storyline that I was starting to become fascinated with. I think if Hobb had kept on one character and story strand per chapter, this book – memorable as it is – would have been even more powerful.

Book 2 – The Mad Ship

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The Mad Ship continues where Ship of Magic left off and reveals some of the secrets that were hinted at in the first book.

Althea Vestrit is on her way home to Bingtown on board the Liveship Ophelia, where she has proven herself a good sailor and won the heart of Trader heir Grag Tenira. But she returns to the news that Vivacia and her crew have not been heard from for many months. The Vestrit family’s dire financial situation has led to the Khuprus family buying the deeds to Vivacia so that they can claim Malta as a bride for their son Reyn, who has fallen for her - a claim the Vestrits feel honour-bound to uphold under the ancient “blood payment” clause of their contract.

Wintrow, on board Vivacia, inadvertently creates a three-way bond between himself, Vivacia, and pirate king Kennit, when he uses his monastery-learned healing powers to prevent Kennit dying when his damaged leg is amputated.

Malta (one of the most infuriating characters from the first book) is still playing her two suitors, Reyn and Cerwin, against each other, but in this book Malta is forced to grow up very quickly and actually comes close to becoming one of my favourite characters.

Brashen Trell, working on board a pirate ship himself (and still battling his drug addiction), spots Vivacia in the docks of a pirate town, flying Kennit’s flag. He sets off for Bingtown to take the awful news of Vivacia’s capture, and the likely slaughter of her crew, back to Althea and her family. Together with Amber, Althea and Brashen pool their resources to buy the Liveship Paragon (the "mad ship" of the title) and attempt to rescue Vivacia and whomever of her family and crew Kennit has kept alive.

Far away in Jamailia, Serilla, an adviser to the Satrap who has spent her life studying the histories and social structure of Bingtown, risks her life to travel out to see the fabled Rain Wild town for herself.

Reyn Khuprus faces a moral dilemma that will turn the lives of every Trader family upside down if ever revealed. His hand is forced by his love for Malta, but destiny has other ideas.

The purpose of the sea serpents in the books, and their status as viewpoint characters is clarified, and suddenly makes the Trilogy even more interesting and complex, if that’s possible.

The secret held by one of the families is connected to Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy, explaining something that the characters in that series didn’t know. It’s a fascinating use of the history of Hobb’s increasingly vibrant world.

Readers of Farseer will delight in these brief pointers, and in the growing role of the character known as The Fool in those books. Those reading Liveship Traders first will not notice these references, and lack of knowledge of them will not affect the understanding of the Liveship story in any way. But I do recommend going on to read Farseer, as you will enjoy the connections, even in retrospect.

Book 3 – Ship of Destiny

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The final book of The Liveship Traders Trilogy takes what was a minor thread in book one and a slight twist in book two, and turns it into the real story of this trilogy. Books 1 and 2 become almost irrelevant, except as the background of the characters involved in the denouement.

And this makes the saga very lifelike – the hopes and dreams and strategies the characters thought were so vitally important in the beginning and middle of the story become strangely insignificant. Main characters are moved aside in favour of second-string characters, for a reason central to the plot of all nine of Hobb’s books involving the Fool.

In Ship of Destiny, Althea, Brashen, Amber, and the mentally unstable Paragon continue their journey to the Pirate Isles to rescue Vivacia, only partly guessing the pain they will face when they reach their destination.

Tintaglia deigns to rescue Reyn and Selwyn, but Malta and the Satrap are captured by Chalcedeans heading through the Pirate Isles. As Brashen and Althea draw Pirate King Kennit (and, more importantly, Wintrow) to them, Malta draws Reyn and Tintaglia to the same area. And so the destinies of the Vestrit children are about to become very clear.

There are further delicate references to the Farseer Trilogy in this book, while Fool’s Errand, the first book of The Tawny Man Trilogy, picks up some interesting and vital points from Ship of Destiny, offering further explanations and follow ups. Don't be tempted to skip straight from Farseer to Tawny Man, as there are important clues in Liveship that bridge the years between the two series.

Review copyright © Elle Neal 2006 Updated 2017, 2021

Read about the previous trilogy in this series: The Farseer Trilogy

The Full Elderling Realm Series by Robin Hobb in reading order:

The Farseer Trilogy
Assassin's Apprentice* | Royal Assassin* | Assassin's Quest*

The Liveship Traders Trilogy
Ship of Magic* | The Mad Ship* | Ship of Destiny*

The Tawny Man Trilogy
Fool's Errand *| Golden Fool* | Fool's Fate*

The Rain Wilds Chronicles 

Dragon Keeper | Dragon Haven | City of Dragons | Blood of Dragons

Fitz and The Fool

Fool's Assassin | Fool's Quest | Assassin's Fate


Robin Hobb's Official Website
The Plenty : the Robin Hobb (aka Megan Lindholm) fanlisting : Robin Hobb / Megan Lindholm fansite for fans of Robin Hobb/Megan Lindholm and her books.


12 thoughts on “The Liveship Traders Trilogy – Robin Hobb – Review

  • Monday at 9:22 AM

    Ah, okay, I should have followed through with the links from the first reviews to these posts… and I see your warning now, not to be hasty and skip the middle set. Okay – all 9 it is then. I sure hope they don’t consume me like the first three, I’ll have to dig deep to find a little self control as I read them. I almost felt Skill controlled to read them straight through, I was completely absorbed. Thanks for this post – You’ve been most helpful!!

  • Monday at 4:38 PM

    I’m glad it helped, Kerri. When you’ve finished those nine books, you have two Rain Wild Chronicles books to get through too! LOL Have fun! 😀

  • Monday at 4:36 AM

    Here is one who did exactly that – skipped the Liveship trilogy and went straight to Tawny Man (thanks to a similar reaction; talking ships?? You gotta be kidding). Now making up for it. Some background stuff, like dragons and prophecies, are no longer a secret, of course. And I miss out on the fun of spotting the Fool. Wish I could wipe out my memories and start again. But… very engaging read, regardless.

  • Monday at 4:57 AM

    After reading most if the 9 books, though not in chronological order, I can say Robin Hobb must be one of my favorite fantasy/sf writers, up there with Julian May, Ursula LeGuin, Tad Williams.

    I read her the first book, Assassin’s Apprentice, more than 10 yrs ago. Didn’t quite like it all that much then, though the storyline was interesting, there is a raw, unpolished quality to the book, that makes it jar in places. After finishing her trilogy, however, the effort pays off. Hobb has improved so much in her craft that I enjoy every turn of phrase, gentle humor and profound observations of what makes us human.

  • Tuesday at 12:58 AM

    Thank you so much for this post!
    I have just finished Farseer, have The Tawny man here already but was battling over whether to go out and buy Liveship before, now I’m convinced.

  • Tuesday at 9:55 AM

    Glad I could help you decide, Alyssa. Enjoy the read!

  • Thursday at 3:01 AM

    Hey there.
    I was wondering, do I have to read the Tawny Man Trilogy BEFORE The Rains WIld Chronicles?
    I just finished The Liveship Traders and I’m already missing the feel of it.
    Since TRWC seems to be following the Liveship story, I was wondering if it would be a big deal if I read this one before the Tawny Man.
    Wouldn’t it spoil some of the story?


  • Thursday at 3:10 PM

    You’re in luck, Reninji. The Rain Wilds Chronicles step away completely from the Fitz/Fool storyline and don’t reference Tawny Man at all. Neither are there any spoilers for Tawny Man in Rain Wilds, so you’re quite safe there. I think you will probably enjoy Rain Wilds more than Tawny man right now if you’re still in the Liveship mood.

  • Thursday at 4:11 PM

    Okay, thank you for your input. I guess i’ll be buying the first one later today. 😉

  • Thursday at 8:37 PM

    You might want to buy both volumes at the same time. It is really one long book that the publisher split into two volumes for some (profit-driven) reason. Book one doesn’t really come to an end point the way each of the books in the Liveship trilogy do.

    I’ll also mention that, while I thoroughly enjoyed the Rain Wild books, I didn’t find them as memorable as Liveship.

  • Friday at 6:51 PM

    Good to know!
    Anyway, the store I went to didn’t have it, so I ended up buying the Tawny Man instead!
    I guess I’ll get it on Amazon sooner or later.

    Thank you for your help Elle.

  • Wednesday at 11:55 AM

    Nice reveiw. I started reading Robin Hobb books with the soldiers son trilogy. I liked the style where in she qhrites her books so i started reading more. I read the farseer trilogy and after that te tawny man trilogy. This morning i finished the 3th book of the rain wilds chronicles. I still have to read the liveship traders trilogy. I was afraid it was to piratety for me. But I don’t think there will be long john silvers of captain sperrows in the liveship traders books. But I still have to face the dilemma of first finishing the rain wild chronicles of pauzing it and read the liveship traders first. The last chapter of the rain wild chronicles is not released jet in pocket version (in the netherlands).

    Thank you for the review now at least I know for sure that I have to read the liveship traders trilogy.

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