ARC provided by the publisher—Orbit—in exchange for an honest review.
Call of the Bone Ships by R.J. Barker
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Series: The Tide Child (Book #2 of 3)
Genre: Fantasy, High fantasy
Published: 24th November 2020 by Orbit
An excellent sequel filled with brutal and bloody seafaring adventures, Call of the Bone Ships elevated the story with remarkable character work.
I’ve to say this again just to emphasize how amazingly well-written these books are. I’m typically not a fan of seafaring stories, be it a book or a show. Whenever I read a book that contained a section involving sea voyage, I tended to view it with trepidation. As such, when I first read The Bone Ships though, I was mind-blown by how much I loved it despite the narrative being predominantly taking place on a ship (albeit one made of bones of a type of dragon called the arakeesian in this world). I waxed lyrical about the superb worldbuilding in my review of that book, and I think that Barker’s gamble of spending so much time doing so for the introductory volume paid off for now he could really play with the character arcs and plotlines. That doesn’t mean that worldbuilding was thrown overboard though as we did get to learn more about the lore behind its strange and wonderful creatures.
“We live in the now. We fight for what we believe is right. We can do nothing else.”
There’s some seriously marvellous character work in this sequel. I think one of the reasons why I loved The Bone Ships so much despite it not being a preferred setting was the theme of redemption and being able to rise above oneself. The main cast here are those among the condemned of The Hundred Isles, and hence cast out as crew of black bone ships. I’ve grown to be really fond of the crew of the Tide Child – some more than others but as a whole the bonding, camaraderie and loyalty of the crew to each other and their shipwife and deckkeeper were some of the highlights of the book for me. Even though most of the characters could be considered as secondary to the plot, they are nonetheless primary to the Joron Twiner’s character development.
“Look in the mirror when you return to your cabin. Ask yourself if people can change, ask yourself if people can surprise you.”
Barker was really brutal on Twiner, who went through so much loss, suffering and pain. The man that Twiner has become by the end of this book was completely unrecognisable from the person I first met in The Bone Ships . The best part was how believably compelling his character arc was, which was compounded by the significance of his role in the future of The Hundred Isles. At some point, I actually started to equate his arc and growth with that of Girton Club-Foot from The Wounded Kingdom as I felt some similarities there. True enough, in the Afterword and Acknowledgements, the author mentioned how this cycle of growth seemed to fascinate him as a writer because Girton went through a similar process.
“She may never like you, but you gave her back her life, and now she will die for you.”
I’ve actually met R.J. Barker in person and he’s a really sweet and nice guy. But man, he can write some truly dark stuff. The Hundred Isles was one of the most unforgiving and harsh worlds I’ve ever read which seemed to highlight all the worst of humanity. There was also the ever present feeling that no one was ever safe. Maybe except for Twiner, given that the stories are mainly told from his perspective. To make it even more tensed, the entire narrative was pretty much a non-stop roller-coaster of action and danger. These scenes were really well-written and the ones involving the might of the sea and nature were highly cinematic. The element of magic was there, even though it’s usually not the focal point of the fights and battles. Well, not until it culminates into the power of songs, and that’s when I started getting epic feels and goosebumps.
“If we do not try we are nothing. You are right there. Better to lose it all for what is right than to live in fear.”
Just like this debut series, Barker’s writing was always engaging and never failed to pull at the heart strings. Although the narrative was dark and brutal, there was also a lot of heart which made it even more captivating. This book put me through the wringer many times, and from what I’ve come to expect from the author, the finale will likely be even worse. Call me a fool as I’m all for it, because nothing beats an emotionally powerful conclusion that rips my heart to pieces.