ARC provided by the publisher, Orbit, in exchange for an honest review.
The Bone Ships by by R.J. Barker
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars.
Series: The Tide Child (Book 1 of 3)
Published: September 26th, 2019 by Orbit (UK) & September 24th, 2019 by Orbit (US)
Bold and inventive, R.J. Barker sailed through new, uncharted waters with The Bone Ships and emerged with a brilliant tale of seafaring adventure and deeds of derring-do.
With The Bone Ships, Barker’s sophomore series is quite a departure from the tone and style in his debut The Wounded Kingdom, which I loved, but the most important that remained is his engaging voice. Let me first state this pertinent fact – I am not typically a fan of seafaring stories – be it in the medium of books or movies. To set some context before I proceed, I have not read The Liveship Traders by Robin Hobbs and not seen the movie, Master and Commander. Why? Because ships. Throughout my many years of reading, whether it’s fantasy or otherwise, I usually dreaded the part of the story where the main characters had to undertake a sea voyage, always hoping that it’ll be as short as possible. There had been exceptions where I’ve found it to be more than just agreeable, but these were rare and usually do not make up the bulk of the narrative.
As such, I was actually pretty anxious going into this book. I would say that over 90% of The Bone Ships took place on a ship and in the sea. And, I loved reading every minute of it. Honestly, I was quite blown away by how much I enjoyed this book. Not only was the narrative predominantly seafaring – the very culture, religion and economy of this world are centred around it. To top it all off, Barker even created a whole slew of new sailing jargons. However, due to his deft skills in contextualising these terms in the narrative, I found myself struggling less than I usually do with our real-world sailing jargon. Barker’s lyrical prose pulled me into the story effortlessly notwithstanding how foreign this world of the Scattered Archipelago was.
On that note, I just want to take a moment here to praise the incredible worldbuilding. Even accounting for the fact that I’ve not read much seafaring narratives, the worldbuilding in The Tide Child feels unique stacked against other fantasy settings. The building blocks of this world – religion, culture, economy, mythology, even the flora and fauna – are rooted in the seagoing life of its people and shaped by the never-ending war between the two major nations in the Scattered Archipelago. All these are so well-crafted that even such foreign environment came alive in my mind. I don’t have the right words to describe how everything seemed to just fit and work well, from ships made from the bones of sea dragons to an avian God, and the worship of feminine deities.
The world is decidedly matriarchal. For example, ships are referred to as “he” as opposed to the typical use of the feminine pronoun and the captains are called shipwife. The social structure is built upon a blatant and absolutely awful discrimination between those who are born normal and those with deformities, however slight. To be part of the fleet is an honour granted to the privileged and strength is perceived from lack of deformity. This is just one of the many harsh realities in The Hundred Isles – life there is hard and brutal. One element of Barker’s writing which stayed true to The Wounded Kingdom is the significance of animals or creatures in the narrative. As an animal lover, I love having them strongly represented in stories, and one of my favourite characters in The Bone Ships is an avian creature.
Now on to the most crucial part of any storytelling, and it is the characters. The Bone Ships differ from Age of Assassins most of all in the way it deals with characterisation. In Barker’s debut, the narrative was so highly character-driven that the plot and worldbuilding seemed secondary to the character arc of Girton Club-Foot. In The Bone Ship though, the balance between characterisation and worldbuilding has shifted with the latter taking more precedence given how unique the setting is. I thought that it was managed remarkably well through the perspective of Joron Twiner, our main protagonist, who was brought up with ingrained prejudices and preconceived notions, pretty much like most of the people in The Hundred Isles.
The story started with Joron being usurped from his position as shipwife of the Tide Child, a black bone ship whose crew is made up of the condemned, and hence known as a ship of the dead. Through Joron, I was able to understand the way of life in The Hundred Isles in all its brutal glory and be part of a compelling journey in his character development. Lucky Meas, a renowned former shipwife of a famous white bone ship, became the shipwife of Tide Child after defeating him easily in a duel. With her competent leadership, we get to witness Joron’s growth, both in his strength of character as well as in his awareness of how wrong some of his earlier prejudices are.
“It diminishes no commander to learn from those which know more. Weak commanders dare not ask. Strong commanders know no fear of learning. And, just so you know, Joron, if I am in a competition I like to win, and as you are my second in command I expect you to win for me. So do not expect me to be soft on you.”
Lucky Meas is a fantastic character. A formidable ship captain who demonstrated solid leadership, competence and well-placed empathy. While we don’t get much of her backstory, enough was revealed to know that her luck could either be from providence or self-made. I would like to believe it’s both. There are some strong leadership lessons in this story that’s for sure, and it was especially captivating because the characters we follow are stuck in a dark place.
I’ve always been enamoured by stories about people rising above what life has thrown at them. Those condemned to the ship of the dead are not necessarily all criminals, but they are essentially deemed as dead the moment they take on the black armband of the crew. Nonetheless, under the right leadership, to be given the trust and the chance to prove oneself, and to then take pride of job done well, even the dregs can rise from the bottom. I found myself caring for the survival of some of these supposed rogues or curs, and feeling equally moved by the stirring speeches delivered by Lucky Meas and the courage of the Tide Child crew as they prepare to face the battles in an almost-suicidal mission.
“To be fleet is not do so what is possible, it is to do what you must.”
The sea battles in The Bone Ships are magnificent. Never have I been able to imagine battles between ships so vividly. Never have I been so engrossed in the ship manoeuvres and fully appreciate the power of wind in seafaring. Even in handling the aspect of wind, the wild and wonderful imagination of Barker shines through. There is magic involved here, and that’s all you’ll ever get out of me for now. If you like seafaring adventures, do yourself a favour and pick up this book, for even one who’s not normally a fan like me enjoyed it immensely. Before I end this review, I also have to make special mention of the stunning map (which I’ve referred to numerous times during my read) and evocative interior art created by the ultra-talented Tom Parker.
An enthralling story in a fascinating yet brutal world and its harsh seas, The Bone Ships is another winner from R.J. Barker.
The quotes in this review were taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.