This is the first of a trilogy. It doesn't assume that you've read anything else (I have no idea if it is even in the same world as any of her other books). It is clearly just the beginning of the story, leaving several interwoven stories waiting for resolution.
I picked this book up at Chambanacon because Eric Flint said something that made me think I should try this author. Unfortunately, I can't remember exactly what he said, but I dove into this book and quickly discovered that it is very engagingly written and it has a central magical gimmick that is quite original (or at least, completely new to me) that I find interesting and well presented. It's very fortunate that it's engagingly written and fairly fast paced, because it's over 800 pages and this is only the first third. This is one of those books that interweaves the stories of several viewpoint characters, and it's a testament to the writing that I didn't feel confused or overwhelmed. We spend a lot of time on sailing ships, with enough detail to make it feel realistic to a complete landlubber like me, but I never got the feeling that I was getting an info dump because the author wanted to show off how much they knew about the subject. We spend a little more time on family drama than I might prefer, but it's pretty good family drama. We spend a lot of time in the heads of a couple of characters that at various times I wanted to retroactively strangle in their bassinets -- but they're complex enough that there are real seeds of redemption in the one that seemed really icky bad at first, and a little sympathy with the second one for trying to do his best when he's out of his depth. Quite enjoyable reading; the biggest weakness is that we get to the end of the book and realize that not as much really happened as we thought -- after 800 pages we're past the beginning and solidly into the middle of several stories, but we haven't seen any endings.
8 out of 10.
**** PLOT SUMMARY -- MASSIVE SPOILERS ****
I'm going to try to hit the high points of the important character's stories here, but I'm certainly not going to try to reproduce how they're intertwined.
The central gimmick of the world is liveships. A liveship is a ship constructed of indestructible wizardwood which is magically sealed to the family that owns it. When three generations of the family die on the ship, the ship wakes up. The figurehead comes alive, with human senses and speech, but the ship's awareness also extends through the whole ship. The awakened ship cannot sail by itself, but it can help the crew sail it, and as a team, liveship and crew will outsail any ordinary ship. But if the ship doesn't like its crew, it can cause mischief up to the level of not moving or foundering itself. And the ships are delicate souls; if they're not treated properly, they can go nuts.
The Vestrits are one of the elite families of Bingtown entitled to have a liveship. The Vivacia has had two captains die aboard, after reasonably long and successful careers, but Ephron, who would be the third, has unfortunately taken sick in middle age. His sons died in childhood of a plague which he apparently blames on the Rain Wild magic (this is the place that wizardwood and liveships come from, and also the magical artifacts whose trade makes Bingtown prosperous and justifies the expense of liveships), so he has vowed that the family won't go there. Without the magic trade, and with the new taxes and bad policies of the corrupt satrap, the family is struggling. And because Ephron is too sick to sail, and Althea, the daughter he's been grooming to replace him is too young, he's put Keffria his other daughter's husband Kyle aboard as captain. Unfortunately, Kyle is not from a trader family; he didn't grow up with the lore of liveships, and while he probably had it explained, he never got it. He's also a horribly manipulative self-centered bastard, and he doesn't like Althea. This is partly Althea's fault; there is some truth to the charge that she's a spoiled child who's only playing at being a sailor. But only some -- and she truly understands the ship. As they're sailing home, Kyle is dong a mediocre job of being a captain, and Althea rubs his nose in it in a way that turns him against her. Althea is counting on Ephron to sort things out, but unfortunately, Ephron is too sick. He's been hanging on just to die on the ship and finish the quickening. And he's allowed his wife Ronica, who's been running the estate for years, and Keffria to browbeat him into agreeing that the ship has to be passed to Keffria and Kyle, rather than to Althea. Althea is devastated by this betrayal and runs off and gets drunk rather than staying to comfort the awakening Vivacia, which lowers her family's opinion of her even farther. The ship must have a blood family member aboard, so Kyle's oldest son Wintrow is conscripted, very much unwilling. Wintrow had been dedicated to the priesthood of Sa years ago and feels that he really belongs in the monastery, but against his will he finds that he does bond with the ship.
Kyle had the bad judgment to swear by Sa in front of witnesses that he would yield Vivacia to Althea if Althea could get proof that she was really a sailor, so she dresses up as a boy and signs on board Reaper, a sea bear hunting ship. She succeeds in hiding her sex from everyone but Brashen, the former mate of Vivacia who also fell afoul of Captain Kyle. Unfortunately, at the end of the trip, Reaper's captain, who had just been trying to convince her to sign on for another trip, is enraged when she reveals that she was a girl and refuses to sign her ship's ticket. Then she manages to get a berth on Ophelia, another liveship, again as a boy, and talks to the ship, who convinces the captain to take her on as herself.
While Althea was doing this, Kyle had determined that in order to make enough money to stave off financial ruin, he would carry slaves. Slavery is illegal in Bingtown, and subjecting a liveship, especially a just-quickened one, to that much misery is a Bad Idea, but he does it anyway. On the way down, Wintrow loses a finger in a shipboard accident and gets on his father's bad side when he refuses to participate in a rigged bear-wrestling game. His father argues that yes, it was rigged and he would lose, but he looked like a coward for refusing to play, and looking like a coward was a greater sin than being a patsy. He does lose the standing he'd gotten with the crew, and when he manages to calmly direct the mate in amputating his finger and sewing the stump, he frightens his shipmates as much as he impresses them. Then they arrive in Jamaillia City, and he decides that he must jump ship, even knowing that it will hurt her, because he can't accept being on a slaver. Then he gets imprisoned for the crime of giving release to a dying slave. The sadistic Torg finds Wintrow in prison, but decides that, rather than pay his fine, it would be more fun to see him branded a slave and then buy him at auction. Wintrow is officially branded as Vivacia's slave, but he's allowed to minister to the slaves as best he can. He convinces Gantry the mate to let him bring a dying slave onto the deck to have the comfort of fresh air, but in the process of unshackling him, the slaves kill Gantry and revolt. In the middle of a storm in treacherous waters, the slaves have mostly won their mutiny when Kennit shows up.
To backtrack, Kennit is a dashing pirate captain and a complete sociopath. At the start of the book, he obtains a prophecy from the mysterious Others that he should be able to succeed in becoming king of the pirate isles. Unfortunately, he doesn't have much success in convincing anyone else that having a king is a good idea; his crew would rather just be successful pirates. On the way to becoming king, though, he wants to capture a liveship (probably mostly for the challenge). He makes a deal with his mate Sorcor -- they'll try to capture a liveship, though Sorcor thinks it futile, if Kennit will then agree to attack a slaver and if they succeed release the slaves. The first liveship they go for escapes, but completely by accident, they release the shipful of slaves into a town of their relatives, winning the adulation loyalty of the town and the slaves. Kennit doesn't believe in the crusade against slavery, but he's willing to accept the cachet of being a beloved liberator. Then he goes to Divvytown, the central pirate base, and fights his way out of an ambush from some fellow pirates who don't like the idea of a pirate king. He takes Etta, his favorite whore, with him, and she proves to be quite a capable girl. Things are going really well for Kennit until a sea serpent attacks his ship and bites his leg. Kennit is quite displeased with Etta for chopping his leg off, even though it saved his life. And he stubbornly refuses to admit that the infection from the sea serpent bite (the leg was half bitten off before being cut free) will kill him if he doesn't allow the rest of the leg to be amputated. But while he's dying, his latest plan to ambush a liveship catches Vivacia just as the mutiny was going down. Wintrow manages to convince Kennit to let him fix Kennit's leg in return for his own and Kyle's lives. And it looks like Vivacia actually likes the captain who's just stolen her.
One other important thread that I haven't covered. Kyle's daughter Malta is at the age where boys are just becoming interesting, and she thinks she should get to go to the big ball as a woman. Keffria and Ronica don't agree. She manipulates Kyle into sort of supporting her before he sails away, and he gives her money that she uses to make a gown that follows the latest style of the satrap's concubines, which the adult women wouldn't approve of even if she were an adult. She sneaks off to the ball, only to be brought home by Davad, another Trader who is dealing with his own hard times by getting involved in some shady business including slavery -- but who Ronica and Keffria still trust as a bastion of the Old Traders' political power. Then there is a special Trader council meeting which Malta is dragged to. She is being a very bratty teenager and insists on being bored by the politics; when she can't canoodle with her would-be boyfriend, she sneaks outside, where she encounters what she thinks is the Rain Wild Trader's coachman. He lets her walk off with a very valuable flame gem. Then he sends a courting gift to the Vestrit house. Ronica has not explained to Malta the deal, going back to the building of Vivacia, that the family's debt is to be paid either in gold or in blood. Paying it in gold will be nearly impossible even if Kyle's slave trading mission is a success. But if Malta marries the Khuprus prince, the debt will be paid in blood. Malta, not understanding the seriousness of the situation, steals the dream box (which Ronica and Keffria meant to return unopened), and has sealed herself to agree to be courted. Of course, realizing that she might have to marry a Rain Wilder has her freaked out, because something about the Rain Wild magic disfigures the families there, and she's too thirteen to be ready to deal with the idea that she might become romantically involved with someone with gross facial warts.
Finally (sheesh, but there are a lot of threads in this), I should mention Paragon. Paragon is another liveship, who was quickened in a bad way (the second and third deaths happening by violence at the same time) and went really crazy. Because his wizardwood hull is nigh indestructible, he survived to drift into port, and one of his family rescued him and sailed him for 17 voyages. But on the 18th, something made him go crazy again and kill all of his crew. He returned again to Bingtown, but this time he was hauled up on an out of the way beach and abandoned. Oh, and somehow in that mess where his crew got killed, someone took an axe to his face and destroyed his eyes, so he's blind. He's been sitting on the beach for a generation wishing he could die. Brashen uses him as a place to sleep when he has nowhere else. So does Althea. Davad Restart is trying to arrange to sell Paragon to some new money interests as lumber, but so far can't get the deal together. But he brings in Amber, a mysterious artist who has built up a business carving amazing jewelry from non-magical wood. Restart wanted her to carve Paragon's wood into valuable things, but when she realizes he's alive, she'll have no part of it. She does form a tentative bond with him, though, and is working toward buying him whole; she imagines she might be able to restore his sight.</i>