The Bone Ships by by R.J. Barker
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars.
Series: The Tide Child (Book 2 of 3)
Published: November 24, 2020 by Orbit (UK & US)
A superb sequel that elevates the series.
It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of RJ Barker’s Wounded Kingdom series, and when I recently reread the first book in the Tide Child trilogy I was once again reminded how much I love his stories and I kept on thinking about the story and the characters long after that reread. So when the time came around for myself, TS and Petrik to resume our buddy read with the Call of the Bone Ships I was more than excited to plunge into this world again and I was overjoyed to find that it was every bit as good as I’d hoped.
The story starts as we immediately join our favourite crew of misfits who make a deeply disturbing discovery. Of course, this discovery is tightly linked to the story and revelations of the first book, so I won’t divulge any specifics other than to say that it sets them on a race against time to save lives and uncover the depths of this horrific plot.
“Better to lose it all for what is right than to live in fear.”
RJ Barker managed to lay down a tremendous amount of worldbuilding in The Bone Ships and while this did impact the pacing slightly in that story, it’s now paying huge dividends in this second book, allowing him even more time to focus on character development. And wow, has he done an outstanding job of it. I laughed and cried and cursed as I followed the journey of the crew, characters I have come to love and hate. Farys, Coughlin, Anzir, Dinyl, Shorn, Cwell… So many feelings. It’s also a testament to the author’s adeptness at clearly portraying relationships in all their complex glory that my feelings about characters I once loathed are now… I don’t know! You’ve muddied the waters RJ! It’s complicated. And it’s fantastic.
The single most impressive journey for me though is that of Mr Twiner. I am flabbergasted just trying to compare the Joron we met in chapter one of The Bone Ships to the Joron we leave at the end of Call of the Bone Ships. The trial and tribulations that he is put through in this book are enough to break many a person, but the losses he suffers somehow make him stronger, more confident, as he refuses to break but rather bends and weathers every tempest that besets him, steadily growing into the best version of himself. I think his relationship with both the Gullaime and Meas is also one of the highlights of the series, and I hope we get to see much more of all of this, but the way RJ is going I am not so sure Joron will make it to the end. If he does, it will probably only be because he is being held together by some combination of string, bandages and hope. I will happily add my hope too.
“Look in the mirror when you return to your cabin. Ask yourself if people can change, ask yourself if people can surprise you.”
As mentioned, less worldbuilding is required in this book, but it’s still very much present as more parts of the map of the world are filled in and history and lore are expanded upon or hinted at. Personally, I hope we get to learn much more about the lore and that it is not left to the imagination, but I think the author will oblige us as there is surely a treasure trove’s worth of things we still don’t know about Gullaime and Arakeesians and the Song within Joron and I can hardly wait to find out all the things.
The pacing is steady throughout, with ebbs and flows, but the tale never loses the wind in its sails, taking on elements of the story as it mimics the swell of waves, moving along smoothly only to build to a peak multiple times throughout the book and bringing everything to a frothy head before crashing down again and then purposefully building up to the next crescendo. It makes for an utterly engrossing read and had all of us who read the book together devouring it swiftly.
Finally, I have one more thing I’d like to say about RJ’s writing. I feel like we have seen such a scope of literary ability already in his two published series, but just like the above-mentioned lore, he has so much more in store for us. Call of the Bone Ships once again puts this talent on full display with brilliant writing all around, be it the use of certain literary devices, the tugging of heartstrings by the simplest of sentences or gestures of the characters, constantly subverting expectations, the quiet contemplative moments, the frenetic chaos and panic of being confronted with the ferocious force of the ocean’s fury, the deep despair of loss or the brutality of naval warfare; the man has a skilled touch and it’s a joy to experience.
Worry only about tomorrow, and the day after. Think not on the day after that for we fly a ship of the dead, and the Hag calls us all. To plan far ahead is to ask for the Maiden to thwart all you are. We live in the now. We fight for what we believe is right. We can do nothing else.”
Call of the Bone Ships is a superb follow up to the first book in the series, and in my opinion even better, raising the bar and laying down a challenge to Wake of the Bone Ships. It underlines why RJ Barker is one of the best writers in fantasy and together with Jen Williams, still one of the most underrated. Criminally so to say the least. I truly hope more people discover them and that they become the household names their work deserves.