A Robin Hobb Rereading Series: Entry 121: Ship of Magic, Chapter 20

Read the previous entry in the series here.
Read the next entry in the series here.

The following chapter, “Crimpers,” begins with Althea aboard the Reaper on her return journey from her hunting expedition, laden with cargo. A brief resupply stop has the crew on a night’s liberty, and Brashen watches over the fortunate “Athel.” He approves silently of her conduct and her comportment on the voyage and ashore as he nurses a dose of cindin. He muses on it, finding himself feeling strangely and making to excuse himself from the tavern where he and many of his crewmates have been drinking and dicing. One of the servers suggests he overnight in her bed, and he moves to accept the offer.

Sailors Carousing - National Maritime Museum
Might be something like this…
Julius Caesar Ibbetson’s Sailors Carousing at the National Maritime Museum, used for commentary

Meanwhile, “Athel” and some crewmates make to wrap up their night of drinking. One of them mentions that another ship in port has lost crew to disease and is starting to press-gang sailors found alone. The crewmates make for the ship, and “Athel” goes looking for Brashen, finding him just as an attack comes. “Athel” yells a warning and is struck down.

When the ship’s “boy” wakes, “Athel” finds “himself” under some scrutiny. There is disbelief that the tavernkeeper and server are complicit with the press-gang, but there is another other disruption that “Athel” is able to collect Brashen and get him back to the Reaper. As they hobble along, Brashen suggests that Althea head for the Six Duchies; she refuses, citing the barbarism of the people there.

Later, Brashen summons the ship’s “boy” for medical treatment; blows to the head do demand some consideration, after all. They confer about their narrow escape from kidnapping, and he doses her with cindin in the absence of more appropriate medicines as he stitches her scalp. The drug and the danger and the damage to their heads combines to push them to have sex. In the wake of it, Brashen comments on the prophylactic wizardwood charm in her belly button; Althea relates the story behind it. And, despite their better judgment, they have sex again.

As I reread the chapter, I find myself thinking that it introduces cindin–something of an analogue of chewing tobacco, and not the first appearance of addictive stimulants in the Realm of the Elderlings novels (as witness here, here, and here, in addition to the noted addictive qualities of the Skill in the Six Duchies). Brashen’s musing on the substance and his old captain’s insistence against it rings true to me; I work in substance abuse treatment at present, and there are no few employers in my area who will fire employees on suspicion of drug use–unfairly, to be sure, but it is an at-will state, to its misfortune–or who will send them to my agency for drug testing. (If they are fired after that, it is not quite so unfair, I think.) And I know many, many people who got into trouble with substance use through something like Brashen describes: a need to take an edge off of sensation and dull pain just a little bit so that they can relax. It is certainly the case that may substances will harm the body; it is also certainly the case that overwork and excessive stress will, as well. So there is that to consider.

Also worth considering is the disregard in which Althea holds the Six Duchies. She remarks aspersively upon their lack of sophistication, comments that seem excessively colonialist, even if the Bingtown Traders from which she hails are not colonizers in the sense of pushing out indigenous peoples. Still, it is a haughty and imperialist perspective, and one that reveals a surprisingly lingering blindness to the level of privilege with which Althea grew up; the conditions that she deplores in the Six Duchies are doubtlessly current among the other-than-Trader families in Bingtown. They are all too current even now in supposedly affluent places; how much more must they be so in a parallel of the Golden Age of Sail?

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