ARC provided by the publisher—Orbit—in exchange for an honest review.
The Bone Ships by R.J. Barker
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Series: The Tide Child (Book #1 of 3)
Pages: 496 pages (UK paperback edition)
Published: September 26th, 2019 by Orbit (UK) & September 24th, 2019 by Orbit (US)
Highly imaginative world-building with a large focus on sea voyages and naval warfare.
Let me begin by saying that I’m a huge fan of Barker’s debut series: The Wounded Kingdom trilogy. I gave each installment in the trilogy a 4.5 stars rating and ever since I finished King of Assassins, The Bone Ships has been on my list of priority books to read ASAP. This is why I’m genuinely sad that I have to give this book a below 4 stars rating, but I have to always be honest with my review. I still had a great time with the book but The Bone Ships is a totally different sort of beast—that’s sadly not too suitable for me—compared to The Wounded Kingdom and I had expected to love this book more. RJ, if you stumbled upon this review, please don’t read it.
“No sane woman or man wishes for war, and those that do never would if they thought it would leave paint on their doorsteps.”
The Bone Ships is the first book in The Tide Child trilogy by R.J. Barker. For generations, the two nations in the Hundred Isles have built their bone ships from the bones of supposedly extinct ancient dragons. The two nations used these ships to wage an endless war for supremacy and dominance in the high seas. Now, our main characters, Joron Twiner and Lucky Meas, heard that there’s a new sighting of a new sea dragon for the first time in centuries; nations participate in a race to shift the balance of power in their favor by catching the dragon. I won’t lie, I struggled through the first half of the book. I, as a reader, prefer characterizations first more than anything else. A focus on characterizations was one of the things Barker did immediately and exceptionally well in The Wounded Kingdom trilogy. The Bone Ships to me felt like it followed the opposite direction by focusing the narrative on heavy world-building first; characterizations came in the second half. The main premise regarding the appearance of a new sea dragon didn’t really begin until 40% in. Because of this, the first 40% felt like the plot was directionless. Thankfully, the second half was significantly better.
“The greatest revenge is not taken with a blade, it is that done by taking your enemy’s taunts and throwing them back in their face.”
The long amount of time required to get me to care about the characters was definitely the most disappointing aspect of the book to me. In The Wounded Kingdom trilogy, I cared about Girton immediately just from the first few chapters and my investment for him and the side characters continuously grew throughout the series. In here, Joron is a type of the main character that takes the role of an observer of a legendary figure; something like Bloodsounder’s Arc by Jeff Salyards. It took a while for me to care about him but I finally started to like the characters in the second half of the book. Seeing Joron Twiner, Lucky Meas, and the misfit crew of Tide Child gradually learn about duty, friendship, honor, and loyalty was simply a joy to read; the expert characterizations skill that was found in Barker’s first trilogy became more evident in the last 35% of the book.
“Loyalty. That is what makes a ship work – ties of loyalty. To each other, to the ship. And every time we fight together, we are bound closer together. It is your nature, Joron, to like people and to be kind. Do not think I have not seen the leeway you give.”
The one thing to highly praise about The Bone Ships, in my opinion, would have to be its inventive and intricate world-building. This isn’t an easy book to read, the learning curve is higher than usual and in the first half was totally a sink or swim situation; world-building, lingo, unique names were introduced rapidly—sometimes in an info-dump manner—that it took a long time for me to acclimate myself with the world and characters. I’m not particularly a fan of long sea voyages in a fantasy book; almost the entirety of the novel was spent on seafaring and this indeed became a hindrance to my enjoyment. However, this is also where the book excels. Not only is the gorgeous cover art similar to the UK cover of The Liveship Traders trilogy by Robin Hobb, the setting was also reminiscent and yet it still felt refreshing and original to read. Gullaime (wind-mage or weatherman), sea dragon, bone ships, and the colossal Skearith’s Spine were some of the factors that made the discovery and sea voyage heavily prominent and awesome in the narrative; if you’re a fan of this kind of novel, this book would be a hit for you. The vivid imagery displayed when they were traveling on the sea was stunning, and the gorgeous map and chapter icons are done by Tom Parker also enhanced the strong atmosphere of the book.
Picture: Interior chapter icons by Tom Parker
If it weren’t because this is written by Barker, I probably would’ve given up reading the book in the first half; I’m glad I didn’t because the second half made the struggle worth it as every part of the novel starts becoming clearer. The vivid world-building and thrilling naval warfare concluded The Bone Ships on a high note. I recommend this book to readers who loved pirates, seafaring, and a fantasy book that prioritized world-building first.
“My advice is to judge them on who they are when you meet them, rather than on what you have heard from those to whom they are only stories.”
Official release date: September 26th, 2019 (UK) and September 24th, 2019 (US)
The quotes in this review were taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.