I love a good seafaring tale. I always have. There’s just something about stories of ships and the sea that captivate me and I can’t help but be swept away on the currents within their pages. So when I saw RJ Barker fresh off his Wounded Kingdom series had written a seafaring yarn I knew I had to read it.
Now, there was some uncertainty going into this book. Barker wrote a magnificent trilogy with the Wounded Kingdom, with a non-traditional protagonist, a broken world, and some all around great writing. A sophomore series, much like a sophomore book will always bring questions about whether the magic that came before will return. Can the author follow-up on that previous success or will they be a one-hit-wonder?
Let there be no doubt friends, Barker has delivered another fantastic tale that will grab your imagination and carry it away on tides of adventure.
“Two nations at war. A prize beyond compare.
For generations, the Hundred Isles have built their ships from the bones of ancient dragons to fight an endless war.
The dragons disappeared, but the battles for supremacy persisted.
Now the first dragon in centuries has been spotted in far-off waters, and both sides see a chance to shift the balance of power in their favour. Because whoever catches it will win not only glory, but the war.” – Goodreads Blurb
Not only has Barker written a seafaring story but it has dragons in it!!!
I don’t have much else to add about the plot that the blurb above doesn’t already include and I don’t want to give any accidental spoilers so I’ll leave it at that and move on to other things.
Like Characters and POV.
“‘Give me your hat’
They were not the sort of words that you expect to start a legend, but they were the first words he ever heard her say.”
The Bone Ships is a third person narrative that primarily follows the actions Joran Twiner, former Shipmother (captain…more on this below) of the Tide Child who has been kicked down to the rank of Deckkeeper. Twiner is something of a mystery. He is the son of a fisherman and was forced into the fleet after the death of his father. His father’s death continues to haunt him and has a major impact on his character development. Twiner also seems to be something more than just your average human from The Hundred Isles but what that something is remains to be seen. Joran struggles with his lot in life, the humiliation of demotion and his place among the crew, loyalty to his country, and his father’s death.
“Lucky” Meas Gilbryn is the most decorated, bravest, and fiercest Shipwife the Hundred Isles has ever seen. So why is she all of a sudden taking over as Shipwife of a Black Ship, one of the fleet’s cast-offs where the sentence for everyone aboard is death one way or another? Meas is also a bit of a mystery because the question throughout is what did she do to get removed from her former command and be disgraced as she is? But whatever the reason, she is a tough and highly skilled Shipwife who must whip her new crew into shape for what will be the toughest mission any of them have ever been tasked with.
Joran and Meas make a good team with her as something of an unwanted mentor. Their relationship provides a little complexity to the overall story. Likewise they both have a bit of mystery surrounding their past which is only revealed in bits and pieces and never fully.
There are many smaller secondary characters packed into this book and it would take too much space to mention them all. One other that stands out in part for its unique strangeness and its impact is the gullaime, a strange solitary avian with the ability to control the winds. This quirky and deadly creature comes to have a tremendous impact on board the Tide Child, and on Joran’s character development.
What really stands out about The Bone Ships is the world-building. Barker has surpassed the world-building he put into The Wounded Kingdom series. This is a nautical world, at least the part of it we know. It is comprised of two great island archipelagos, The Hundred Isles, and the Gaunt Islands. Both nations have societies built around ships and the sea with their identities bound up in life upon the water. If you cannot serve in the fleet to fight against the enemy across the sea you are a lesser person. As such, when a new dragon is discovered, a new source of materials necessary to build new ships, it creates a new arms race that no one wants to lose.
Barker has filled this world with exotic plants and animals. Almost nothing in it is an exact match for what we might find in our own world. There are similarities, such as the beakwyrms that run before the “beak” of the ship like a dolphin, but these creatures will also tear a person apart should they fall into the water. Almost all the flora and fauna is this fantasy world seem otherworldly and dangerous, something the people must guard against and be wary of in addition to their human enemies.
Then there’s the human elements. The cultures are matriarchal. This is seen not just in the fact The Hundred Isles are ruled by a woman, and the ruling class of the “Bern” are made up of women, but in the way things are titled…ships are called “he” and captained by a “Shipwife” with a “Deckmother” who is in charge of discipline. The admiral of the fleet is the “Shipmother.” It’s natural in this world for women to be at the helm of both ship and state.
I’ve seen some reviews mention the pacing is a little slow in the beginning before the book really sets sail in the second half. While this is arguably true I don’t see it as a negative. Barker quickly introduces the reader to the main characters and the crew of the Tide Child and then sets out to do some world-building. I think this was an important choice given how strange the world is compared to what many of us are used to and with what Barker plans to do with it. Then once the reader has had a chance to become comfortable with this new setting with its strange titles, crazy scary new creatures, and the importance of life on the sea Barker transitions back to a focus on character development as the story catches the wind and sets course for multiple confrontations and it’s thrilling conclusion.
Barker’s writing style is much like that in his previous series. And by that I mean outstanding. Barker is great with narrative development and is fantastic with his fight scenes which feel intense and thrilling. Dialogue is on point as well and infused with little world-building details that enhance the story even more.
The story is also bound up in themes of loyalty and redemption. It explores what it means to be loyal to oneself, to one’s friends and shipmates, and to one’s leaders. On a broader scale it explores loyalty to one’s people and paradoxically to one’s enemies. Is there another higher loyalty they owe? It also casts an eye on redemption and what it means to the individual who has been condemned. Are there opportunities out there for the condemned to change their lot in life, can they do so within the system as it exists for them currently or do they have to challenge that worldview? These two themes look to carry over into book two where I imagine the characters will encounter even greater challenges.
I should also take a moment to say something about the art in the book starting with the magnificent cover illustrated by Edward Bettison with design and lettering by Hannah Wood. I’m a firm believer in the importance of a good cover as the lens through which we first interpret a book and this one definitely gives off vibes of a great nautical adventure. But there’s also interior art! A beautiful world map and drawings by Tom Parker that adorn each chapter heading enhance that vibe of an age of sail in an alternate fantasy setting. It’s all so well done and gives the book a visual aesthetic to match the picture Barker has conjured in the mind.
My only complaints are that I wanted more! By that I mean I wanted more about Meas’ past and how she ended up in her situation. I wanted more about the mystery that seems to surround Joran and whether there’s more to him than meets the eye. I also wanted more from some of the secondary characters such as Narza who arrives as Meas’ bodyguard (and maybe more?) about half-way through the book. Narza is presented as scary and definitely someone you don’t want to mess with but then we don’t see as much of her as I’d expect by the end of the novel. Maybe we’ll get more of all of them in book two…at least I hope so!
RJ Barker has written something grand with The Bone Ships and has established that he is a writer with staying power. The Tide Child Trilogy is one to add to your TBR today. If you’re looking for a book to carry you away on tides of daring swashbuckling feats of naval warfare with stunning world-building and characters you’ll root for then look no further. Just sit back, cast your gaze upon the horizon, and wait for those sails to appear in the distance.
4 of 5 Stars
Note: I was sent a free copy of this book by the publisher.
Author: RJ Barker
Series: The Tide Child (#1)
Publication Date: September 24, 2019