ARC provided by the publisher—Orbit—in exchange for an honest review.
The Bone Ship’s Wake by R.J. Barker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Series: The Tide Child (Book #3 of 3)
Genre: Fantasy, High fantasy
Published: 30th September 2021 by Orbit
Highly satisfying and achingly emotional, The Bone Ship’s Wake was the unforgettable conclusion that I was hoping for in this phenomenal trilogy.
How did this even happen – a seafaring fantasy story becoming one of my favourites? Hats off to R.J. Barker as he did something truly extraordinary. His excellent debut trilogy, The Wounded Kingdom made me eager to try whatever he writes next, and now The Tide Child shot him up to become one of my insta-buy fantasy authors.
“The sentence is passed, only the day is undecided.”
As with most of my reviews of concluding books, I’ll generally go in the direction of talking about how I felt about the entire series – in this case, it was resoundingly amazing. Firstly, I have to say that The Tide Child was one of the more unconventional fantasy stories out there, even amongst the more modern fantasy offerings of late. The world is unlike what I’ve ever read before with a society and culture steeped in seafaring, and also one which is decidedly matriarchal. Even the lore and magic (if you could even call it that) felt unique, with the song of nature playing a fascinating role. With seafaring being the backbone of the social structure, the one aspect of magic that is most important is the command of wind. This mystical ability resides within bird-like creatures called gullaime, who are termed as windtalkers on board the ships. Speaking of the ships, these are magnificent vessels which are built from the bones of sea dragons, the arakeesians.
“If you think you can dilute your pain in blood you are wrong. Blood will only feed it.”
As wondrous as it all sound at this point, the brutal truth was that this world was awfully harsh and unforgiving for those who were not born flawless or perfect. This is where I found the story to be markedly different. I’ve mentioned to my co-blogger when we finished the second book that the Hundred Isles was the true antagonist of the story, as there seemed to be a lack of a prominent villain so to speak. And that’s probably why Barker approached this series differently from his debut, by focusing on the worldbuilding first before delving into the character development. Thereby serving to establish where the true enemy lies – within the very culture and society of the world these characters live in.
“I cannot change what I was, what I did cannot be made less wrong. But I can give all I have to stop those things happening again, and the world can ask no more of me.”
This made the odds almost insurmountable, when the enemy that one faces is all around you. It also made the character arc and growth of the primary protagonist of this story, Joron Twiner, so utterly incredible and so brutally heartwrenching. The entire series was told almost entirely from the perspective of Twiner, the son of a fisherman who was condemned to the black ship, Tide Child, after accidentally killing the son of an important man. He started out as quite a weak character with ingrained prejudices. His growth was an extraordinary story of redemption and how second chances under the right leadership and conditions can transform a person. By the end of the sequel, I said that Twiner was completely unrecognisable from the person we first met. At the start of this volume, he’s practically a new man albeit one that’s given to melancholy. While I equated his development to be somewhat similar to Girton, I have to say that Twiner suffered even more especially since he’s not as physically skilled and strong as the former.
“I have flown that course, the one of vengeance,” he said. “Found my destination is always on the horizon, the journey never to be over.”
I’m seriously at loss for words to describe how phenomenal the character work was in this trilogy. Even the side characters mattered so much, and maybe it’s because they mattered that much to Twiner which translated into emotions made palpable to this reader. Barker was not shy on dealing darkness and death, as I’ve said many time before, this was a very harsh world. As such, I’ve expected many characters that I liked and cared for to die. However, he had to make it even more painful and heartbreaking in the way those characters died. And then there was that one particular character which I despised for a good half of the trilogy who totally surprised me with her turnaround. Again, another great arc about second chances. Can you already tell that I’m a huge sucker for stories like this?
“And if this was not what his father had promised, if this was not the glorious stories of being fleet, of proud boneships and honourable shipwives, well, that was because life was not stories. Life was painful, and it was hard and it was cruel and full of loss. And if this was not the peace Meas had wanted, had fought for, well, that was because there was no peace without war.”
What else can I say except that reiterate that I live for stories that make me feel, and nothing is more satisfying than an emotionally powerful conclusion that rips my heart to pieces. The Bone Ship’s Wake absolutely did that. The climactic scene had the combined intensity of epic sea battle scenes, heart-wrenching courageous sacrifices and the magical culmination of the power of song.
Already in a emotional mess, I continued reading on to the author’s Afterword, which kept on grinding me into a pulp. To my amazement, my earlier thoughts about the true antagonist in these books were verified by Barker himself. I also had to quote his parting words as I felt that it so beautifully captured what he tried to convey in this story.
“So, just like Meas gave Joron space to change, grow and become a better person, it’s a better world if we can all find the space to let others be who they need to be to get on. And, like the Gullaime shedding her robe to reveal the shining creature beneath, if we let them then people may surprise us in wonderful and magical ways.”
Such an extraordinary series, such an incredible author, such authenticity – R.J. Barker, you have won a fan for life.