I reread Robin Hobb's Liveship Traders trilogy this week (Ship of Magic, Mad Ship and Ship of Destiny). I had read them several years ago but when I went back to read them, I found myself painfully slogging through the first few chapters and setting them aside. It's the middle trilogy in a continuing series and I would read the Farseer trilogy and then skip to the Tawny Man trilogy. Those two had my favourite characters (Fitz, Chade and the Fool). The Liveship series deals with the Fool, but I didn't realize it until the end of the last book (he's in disguise). Other than that, it's a new cast of characters and a new section of territory in the world Hobb created.
This time I decided to slog it out. And after the first hundred pages, my decision was rewarded. I no longer felt like I had to skip over sections just to keep my interest going. The characters and story gripped me.
The question I ask myself as a writer is: why don't the first hundred pages work? To me, it's just as important to look at what doesn't work and why as it is to look at what does work and why. Things can be very close and yet miss by a critical margin.
When I was in high school, I read an absolutely horrible fiction book called Tomb of the Christ or something like that (it was bad enough to have been banished from the memory of the Internet). It featured an archaeologist who finds what is proven to be the physical body of Jesus of Nazareth. From there, we go on a mad romp around the world peppered with a pathetic love story and Vatican hit squads. It was awful.
But the story is close to Dan Brown's highly successful Da Vinci Code. Things which struck me as horribly implausible in the first end up working in the second. I don't remember enough to actually do a comparison but the point is that Brown succeeded where the other author failed.
Back to Liveship Traders.
Going back, I think the reason why I had to push myself was the characters. Every single one of them is highly unpleasant. We have Kennit the pirate, a sociopath with grand megalomaniacal dreams of being a King; Malta, Scarlett O'Hara without the veneer of politeness; Wintrow, constantly whining about wanting to be back at his monastery but unwilling to take action; Kyle Haven, a bullying father; and Keffria, his beleagured and spineless wife. Almost all of these characters have great growth in their arcs, but when we first meet them, there aren't really any redeeming features.
The closest we have to attachable heros are Brashen, the first mate; Althea, the captain's daughter and Ronica, her mother. Brashen has a great underdog story: his captain is dying and the new captain thinks he's scum. But when he's cast off from his ship, he immediately turns back to the drug use which got him in trouble in the first place. Ronica struck me as a strong woman at first, but then she uses her strength to convince her husband to displace Althea as the heir to the family ship. Althea takes this betrayal and storms off in a selfish huff.
There isn't anyone taking action I can sympathize with. It takes them all awhile to decide to try and claw their way back to a happy ending rather than slipping further into disaster. I can see how a writer would have enjoyed this story, there was a lot of meaty character development to sink your teeth into. But I think there was too much despair too soon. It's a good lesson.
I still recommend the Liveship Traders. Push past the beginning and you'll find it well worth your effort.