Robin Hobb's second "Liveship Traders" installment builds richly upon the foundations laid in the first, adding layered nuances of character, political climate and ancient history. Mad Ship, like Ship of Magic before it, is at the very least a ripping-good sea yarn. A look at a different part of the "Farseer Trilogy" world, this series exhibits the author's deft hand with both characterization and world-building. As the scope of the story broadens, Hobb's editorial discipline slips a bit. The prose occasionally seems distracted, as if the author were looking out a window daydreaming while composing. Fortunately the imperfections are far too few to detract appreciably from an engrossing tale.
The women of the Vestrit Trader family wait in vain for the return of the liveship Vivacia. Her cargo of slaves, normally taboo for one of the sentient vessels, may be the family's last chance to hoist themselves out of crushing debt. Althea Vestrit, courted by Trader heir Grag Tenira but longing for the disgraced Brashen Trell, has proved her shipboard mettle on the Tenira's liveship Ophelia. She hopes to lay claim to her former inheritance from her domineering brother-in-law when the Vivacia returns to the Bingtown harbor. Althea's niece, Malta, waits longingly for her father's return, busying herself with Bingtown flirtations and her courtship with a young Rain Wild man.
Kennit, the pirate who would be king, has captured the Vivacia, along with Captain Kyle Haven and his studious son Wintrow. Kennit promises Wintrow and his father that they will live if Wintrow can heal the festering remains of the pirate's leg, a wound taken in an attack on the ship by increasingly bold sea serpents. Wintrow agrees, and as time passes he becomes more convinced of the importance of Kennit's destiny. The pirate is carefully wooing the liveship, and Vivacia may not be so willing to be reclaimed by Althea Vestrit if that comes to pass.
Althea, Brashen Trell and the enigmatic wood-carver Amber manage to acquire the abandoned liveship Paragon, a beached hulk left by his Trader family after a series of disastrous journeys. Most of Bingtown believes that Paragon is mad, but he is the last hope of the Vestrits for regaining the Vivacia. While the three friends and a motley crew of drunks and layabouts take to sea to rescue the family liveship, Bingtown becomes embroiled in a violent political upheaval against the corrupt Jamaillian leader and his rapacious Chalcedean allies. Malta is spirited away to the Rain Wilds by her fiance Reyn as the docks and warehouses on Bingtown harbor burn. There, she will become a part of something greater than she ever imagined: the release of the last dragon from her wizardwood cocoon.
With an unfolding story as rich as that of "The Liveship Traders," Hobb's latest series cannot fail. The depths to which she plumbs her characters' psyches ensure the author's place among the greats of contemporary high fantasy -- few can match her in that arena. Mad Ship may not be the pinnacle of Robin Hobb's achievements, but it still tops much of what shares shelf space with it.