Book Review: The Bone Ships by RJ Barker
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Series: Book 1 of The Tide Child
Publisher: Orbit (September 24, 2019)
Length: 512 pages
With the completion of his Wounded Kingdom trilogy, RJ Barker has shot up to the top of my must-reads authors list and I was so excited when I found out that his next fantasy series will be a maritime adventure set on the high seas featuring bone ships and a dragon hunt!
This first novel of the Tide Child trilogy aptly titled The Bone Ship takes us to the Hundred Isles where two rival nations have been warring since time immemorial. None can even tell you how or why the enmity started between them, but all they know is that in this archipelago system, the side with the best ships win. Thus for generations, the islanders have endeavored to build the most powerful fleets out of the sturdy bones of great sea dragons, but after centuries of this practice, inevitably these magnificent beasts have been hunted to extinction. Dragon sightings have become virtually non-existent, sparking yet another fierce competition for the few bones that remain.
Unfortunately, this culture of constant war has also affected the ways people lived. Society favored the strong, and it was decreed that anyone with a physical defect or disability—and even those who were born from a mother who died in childbirth—is automatically relegated to the lower classes, denied a chance to ever amount to anything. That said, it wasn’t all peachy for the healthy and able either. Many are sacrificed to the dangers of the sea, sent to win glory and treasures or die in brutal conflict. In this society where birthrate is low and whose survival depends on raising the next generation, women who have proven their ability to bear and deliver many children are also in places of authority, but as a result, everything else about what makes her a person is diminished. It didn’t matter who you were, it seemed life on the Hundred Isles had relatively little meaning beyond your ability to breed or to fight.
Which brings us to the main characters of this particular tale, Joron Twiner and Lucky Meas Gilbryn. Both of them are condemned to the crew of the Tide Child, a ship of the dead, so called because those aboard are prisoners and outcasts who will toil the rest of their lives on the ship in service to their nation, and it is only a matter of time before the sea claims them—no riches or glory for them, ever. The book first begins with Joron as the shipwife, or captain, of the Tide Child, but he is soon swiftly dethroned by the fierce and plain-spoken Lucky Meas, who vows to whip her new crew into shape. She has been given a mission, and in order to have any chance of success, she’ll need all of them at their best. News of a dragon sighting has been spreading across the Isles, sending everyone into a furor to hunt the creature, which might be the last of its kind in the world. But the Tide Child has been given different orders. Instead of killing the dragon, they have been sent to protect it.
So, one thing I’ve learned from reading Barker’s books is that he is extremely on-point when it comes to writing mentor-apprentice relationships. Granted, Meas and Joron are nothing like Merela and Girton from The Wounded Kingdom, but the author has made their dynamic no less interesting and filled with nuance. This time, the story is told from the third person, mostly through Joron’s eyes. This essentially places him in the role as chronicler of Lucky Meas’ achievements, as it soon becomes clear she is the series’ lynchpin. But one downside of this mode of narration is that it ends to put a distance between the reader and the characters, and I confess missed the more intimate perspective of Barker’s first-person writing. Still, as Meas second-in-command, Joron is also like her pupil of sorts. Their constant interaction and close proximity makes him a good authority on her character, and as a result, much of what we find out about the shipwife is gleaned from his observations of her and their conversations.
I also loved the incredible world-building behind The Bone Ships. Life in the Hundred Isles is harsh, cruel and unpleasant, but I give me a good maritime fantasy and you’ll find that I can put up with a lot of bleakness. After all, I can never resist a sea-faring adventure, and the promise of pirates and dragons simply sealed the deal. Also, the more I learned about the world, the easier I found to appreciate it, even some of its nastier and more brutal elements. Barker clearly spent a lot of time crafting the world, the people and their culture and their traditions, and I’m happy to say all that hard work paid off in the sheer immersion of the experience. History and mythology intertwine to create a full picture of the setting and to explain how life on the Hundred Isles has developed to become so dark and rife with chaos.
With that said, it’s time to move on to the criticisms, though to be fair, they are few. Mainly, The Bone Ships has a mild case of what I call the first-in-a-series doldrums, suffering from sections marked by sluggish pacing which took the wind right out of the story’s sails. What’s more frustrating is that more often than not, these periods would follow immediately after a flurry of action. One moment, I would be all pumped up, only to run smack into a brick wall a few pages later. I understand that in a series starter there’s a lot of setup to be done, but that requires a careful balancing act, which I wish had been handled better here. Fortunately, the second half had fewer of these pacing issues, and the story picked up immensely thanks to many the many exciting scenes of pitched battle at sea.
I won’t deny it, I’m hooked. Despite its hitches, I think The Bone Ships is a promising start to what is on track to be an extraordinary new fantasy series, and strengths like the superb world-building and characters have no problem shining through. Better yet, now that the groundwork has been established, the sequel will likely run more smoothly considering we’ll be able to jump straight into the action. Needless to say, I can’t wait.