I expected greatness out of Ship of Magic, especially since I devoured both The Farseer Trilogy and The Soldier Son Trilogy. Also, Robin Hobb is one of my favorite writers, so the bar is always high for me when it comes to her books. Unfortunately, for the first time I came away disappointed.
Hobb's greatest strength is twofold: her characterizations and her world-building. She has a knack for creating believable, likeable, even detestable characters. Also, the settings she creates are top-notch: well thought out, realistic, and most definitely populated by 'believable' characters.
Ship of Magic does not falter in these areas. But ultimately it did fail to present to me a character which I could readily identify with. Therein lies the true strength of The Farseer and Soldier Son trilogies. Both have strong yet flawed and very sympathetic characters. Ship of Magic has Althea, who fits this bill to some extent, but because there are so many other characters and other plotlines, she gets lost amidst the clutter.
Which brings me to my second contention with Ship of Magic: it's just too darn long. Standing in at a hefty 800 pages, this monster of a book is, in my opinion, about 400 pages too long. I've given up such weighty (no pun intended) series like George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire for wasting my time with books that go nowhere. While Hobb's pace moves along well enough, I still felt it suffered from bloat.
My last issue with Ship of Magic has to do with the characters, or rather my dislike of most of them. Kyle Haven is an ass. Wintrow is an unlikable wuss. Malta is useless.
Althea, already mentioned, stands out amongst these less than likable personas. Brashen, also, as a well thought out character whom I found myself genuinely rooting for.
At this point, I don't know if I want to invest the same amount of time in books two and three if book one is any indication of things to come. I don't know if either gets any better or worse in terms of page count. Also, as engaging as some (OK, two) of the characters are, the story lags. There's just not enough going on. It's mostly this trader family does this and the other one does that. The great thing about The Farseer Trilogy is that it has all the great characters but also an overlying mystery—what are the Outislanders doing to the people of the Six Duchies to turn them into such monsters and how are they going to stop the invasion? It's a strange happening that kept me reading on and on.
Ship of Magic just didn't have this same attraction.