The Bone Ships by R J Barker
I would like to thank Nazia from Orbit for an advance copy of this novel in exchange for fair and honest review
Publisher – Orbit
Published – Out Now
Price - £8.99 paperback
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.
Fantasy tends to love the land not the seas. Tolkien saw it as a way to wave off characters than have the battles. Yet there is a richer set of novels from the likes of Robin Hobb’s Live Ship Traders or Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin series that have seen the sea as more than just a landscape; they’re a battleground between humanity and nature and a place of intrigue and mystery. RJ Barker fresh from his very successful Wounded Kingdom series of murder mystery, political intrigue and land-based battles now moves into a different world and has created a maritime epic action adventure tale that is both hugely enjoyable and deliciously ambitious.
This time the setting is the high seas and a world surrounded by epic storms in which most people live on series of islands. On one side of the world we have the Hundred Isles and on the other the Gaunt Islands. They have fought each other for supremacy; and each accuses the other of starting the raids each other performs that result in the capture and murder of children. This war however is fought via the sea and so ships are the key to victory and in this world the best source of a ship is the bones of a ‘Keyshan’ essentially a sea dragon; but these days Keyshans are rare and the fleets on both sides are seeing the end of shipbuilding and with it the end of their warfare. Into this world we focus on the Hundred Isles ship The Tide Child – its known as a ship of the dead painted stark black in contrast with most ships bone-white purity. Its crew are the condemned and they’re always at the back of the queue in terms of resources, respect and quality. This particular ship was originally commanded’’ by Shipwife Joran Twiner a young drunk who is running away from his crew and his life. That is until in the first chapter of the book he is challenged for his Shipwife’s hat by the legendary ‘Lucky’ Meas a woman who is one of the most accomplished leaders in the fleet and who now herself has been condemned to the ships of the dead. Joron is going to be dragged unwillingly into the race for the last remaining living Keyshan and the fates of the world will end up being reliant on one of the worst ships in the fleet.
There is a huge amount to unpack in this tale. Even my summary doesn’t even start to scratch the surface of this world and the people in it. As you can tell this is a very different variation to our own world and as a consequence it’s got its own vocabulary and culture all to one side of our own. This is on the advanced side of the worldbuilding and that can sometimes appear disorientating. To compensate for this the first half of the book goes for a more episodic approach where we meet Joron and Meas; the crew of the Tide Child and the state they’re in! Then we visit the capital and understand more how Meas fts in this world and her mission. In each section as well as giving us glimpses of the character and story we see how this world and particularly the Hundred Isles work. This introduces us to the slang of the Bone Ships and the world they inhabit. I really liked this as the often-shared culture of books set in quasi medieval world is something fantasy readers have absorbed unconsciously for years this is something different. The slow pace here really sets up for a blistering second part. Once the main mission is underway the book picks up speed and it’s the crew versus the opposition to get to that Keyshan and we move into a beautiful set of sea and land battles where everything is put on the line; loyalties tested and the story moves to full on heart. Barker has an amazing ear for making you feel the pressure and chaos of a battle and the final section just soars but you need to know and understand the world before hand so a bit like the huge missiles the ships fire each other the structure of the book is to load the weapon; tighten the plot with lots of tension and then full on let loose and fly!
The word building itself is brilliant. The Hundred Isles is a matriarchal society; men are prized for their looks and fertility and women tend to be in positions of power hence here Captains are Shipwives; a ship is always a ‘he’ and there is a tolerance towards both people of different ethnicities (Joran himself is a person of colour) different genders and sexualities. Even the main religion uses a trio of Maiden, Mother and Hag to rule all of them and as the story progress little myths and sea traditions really makes this world come alive. Yet as a same time this society is horribly ableist condemning those born with disabilities to the Black Ships or the lower ends of society and most disturbingly it’s a deeply religious society which prepared to sacrifice the first born for the glory of the ships. It’s full of power struggles and intrigue and as the story develops, we see the Gaunt Islanders match them for complexity too. The whole feeling is a of world on the edge of a massive conflict and a corrupt set of leaders who care only about their own power. The Tide Child is in the literal firing line for being in a potential position to change all of this with its new captain.
With Joran and Meas and it’s a fascinating evolving double act. Joron is a lost soul with various secrets that led to his condemnation and drunken stupor only originally installed as shipwife by his crew as he was felt to be pretty harmless. Joran initially just wants revenge and his role back but then he realises that Meas really is a true Shipwife. Meas is the thunder and lightning compared to Joran’s more amiable nature. She’s fascinating to watch in her scenes, and we see there is the element of the performance as an indominable and perhaps uncaring leader compared with a more intimate side which she only shows to those she trusts. Driven herself by a personal agenda she has a point to prove and nothing is going to get in the way. With Joran demoted to first mate over the course of the novel Meas and Joran have to work together to get their crew to function. There is that classic trope of a ragtag troupe being turned into a fighting force and be it in Cornwell’s Sharpe, or Pratchett’s The Watch or say Django Wrexler’s Shadow Campaign tale it’s a theme I always love as we get people to show they’re better than the elite think and people suddenly gain confidence in themselves. Joran actually for the first time gets to know his crew (not all though are on his side) and there is a host of characters we meet, and we care as they live and die in the adventures to follow.
The final theme which I would say is only just emerging in this volume is that this world is magical and also itself changing. The Keyshan is a mysterious unknown entity and the Tide Child’s crew gets to witness their incredible power and also awareness of them – both inhuman and yet totally sentient. But I also loved the mysterious Gullaime – essentially a talking, walking featherless bird hidden in robes. Incredibly scruffy and viewed as unlucky they can control the wind of the ship – on the Tide Child their own is viewed as defective but as the story evolves we see the Gullaime has their own agenda and it also ties into a theme of humanity’s cruelty is not letting this world evolve as much as it could.
I think this series has got off to a blistering start and I loved it. I admire that this is not the Wounded Kingdom Part 2 - it’s a very different novel and approach but still carries on Barker’s ability to create and combine great characters and worldbuilding with a fantastic plot. My advice would be to soak up the first half and then be prepared to go full sail when the ship sets sail; but you’ll notice a lot of points I suspect are key to this novel and the wider series are being seeded. I am now totally on board this ship ad ready to see where the crew goes next.