I recently finished the Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb. I read the two trilogies about FitzChivalry before I went to Germany and found them really great. The writing style is rich, with big words I haven’t seen before (and I have a good vocabulary), descriptive without being flowery. The plot moves along at a good, epic story pace, but the books seem to take forever to get through – making them a really worthwhile $9. Unlike Tolkien, characters don’t take an eternity to wander through the wilderness, but they are going on life-changing journeys to save their culture from incompetent short-sighted politicians and invading forces of evil.
The world itself is well developed, with weather and wildlife that differs depending on where the characters are. The magic in the world is subtle and somewhat rare, and its mechanics are different than your typical sorcery. Each nation has its own culture, from the Six Dutchies in the north that are barbaric but equalitarian survivors, to Chalced, the empire whose prosperity is built on slavery and conquest.
With such differing cultures and goals, there is a lot of political tension and maneuvering that is handled realistically. Weak leaders put their own interests ahead of the greater good, and heroes learn (or not) from realistic mistakes. Very few, if any, characters are clearly good or bad – they are very humanly flawed, struggling against handicaps, addictions, and mistakes in judgement – but Robin Hobb does an excellent job of fleshing each out to be more than a token tragic flaw. Even minor characters are given personalities that are easily brought to life through skilled writing. I was particularly impressed when a section written from a young girl’s point of view was clearly written through the lens of her priorities and perception of the world around her. Men and women are equally well characterized, with different sets of priorities and attitudes.
One of my only complaints reading the Liveship Traders books was that even to my extremely limited knowledge of sailing ships and related concepts, there were a lot of flaws that were apparent. Even if I didn’t know the definition of a ship is “a boat with three or more masts,” I learned enough from the Hornblower books that you can see a ship from far enough away that you won’t have the enemy shooting flaming arrows at you within minutes of sighting them. That was the most obvious instance that bothered me, but I ran across a few others… if you’re a Captain Aubrey nut, I think you’ll have to remember MST3K’s advice on suspension of disbelief.
If you’re wondering how he eats and breathes / And other science facts, / Just repeat to yourself “It’s just a show, / I should really just relax…”
Otherwise, I find the whole atmosphere Hobb has created amazingly realistic for epic fantasy. Basically I like these books for a lot of the same reasons that I like Battlestar Galactica and DS9.