THE BONE SHIPS by RJ Barker (Book Review)
As someone who loved RJ Barker’s debut Wounded Kingdom trilogy, I was thrilled to get an ARC of his new book – and to save any suspense, it did not disappoint. The Bone Ships has many of the hallmarks of RJ’s earlier work – conflicted characters, weird magic, and fantastic creativity. In some ways, this is a more conventional tale, but one set in an unconventional and inventive fantasy world occasioning an unconventional and inventive lexicon. That alone means it’s a book I don’t think a debut author could dare, rather than one coming off a successful debut and ready to cast off what shackles selling a debut entailed.
You could really tell the author couldn’t wait to push the boat out, where before they’d hidden a lot of the more exotic elements – and, after a slight learning curve, I found it hugely refreshing. Too many fantasy books are barely fantastic, whereas this world clearly contains wonders only hinted at in this first volume. Can’t wait to find out more!
The Bone Ships is a nautical yarn in the tradition of Hornblower and O’Brien, but with a huge dose of fantasy. Instead of nautical terms that some may know and others may find confusing, he invents a whole new vocabulary – so everyone is in the same boat (sea what I did there?). A world like Earthsea, with vastly different flora and fauna to that of earth, or most other fantasy tales. For example, hardwood as we know it is unheard of, and metal is scarce. As a result, the sailing warships that rule the waves between the vast archipelagos are made of (of course) the bones of giant sea creatures. Otherwise, those used to Napoleonic ships of the line will find the overall picture familiar, even if all the names have changed.
“Nautical fantasy” is a surprisingly neglected subgenre, and this book goes a lot way to making up for that. The author expresses some trepidation in the afterword about the accuracy of their portrayal of sailing ships and seamanship, but I consider myself reasonably familiar with both and I had no complaints – none that couldn’t be explained away by a bit of magic or the differences in construction or environment, anyway. That’s the great advantage of fantasy!
So, besides ships made of sea-dragon bones (which, honestly, should be enough), what is the book about? Well, it’s about a crew condemned to die, a forgotten ship, a young man desperate for purpose, and the legendary captain (sorry, shipwife) who will resurrect them all. It also has a foul-mouthed bird and any number of vicious, bloodthirsty sea-creatures that make sharks look cuddly.
As the book opens, Joron Twiner is the sorry soul in command of the Tide Child, a four-rib ship of the fleet – but a “black ship”, one in which every member of the crew has been given a life sentence (or, in other words, a death sentence). And he’s not in command, he’s hiding out and staying as drunk as possible.
That all changes with the arrival of “Lucky” Maes Gillbryn, a woman with a fearsome reputation and a mission to complete – and she needs the Tide Child to do it. To Joron’s surprise (and great fortune), she decides she needs him too. With that, we are off on an adventure full of conspiracy, shifting loyalties, swashbuckling sea-battles, and a hunt for the first (or is it last?) sea dragon.
And the book is every bit as good as that sounds – and more.
However, and though it’s perhaps unfair to say so, I did miss Girton’s voice. The third person narration doesn’t allow quite as much personality to come through, and so the prose is less distinct. Joron is a fine character, and it’s great to see his growth in the shadow of Lucky Maes, the true hero of the story. He’s also a far less competent character to start with than Girton was, and though this gives him a more conventional arc, it also means Maes drives all the action.
However, telling the story from her POV would be less interesting in many ways, and Barker also avoids the trap of making Joron any sort of Mary Sue in order to make him more of a protagonist. Knowing how Barker handled Girton’s story over three books, I’m sure Joron (and Maes) have a lot more struggle to go through, though I will say that overall this book feels a bit lighter than the previous trilogy. However, those books did get darker as they went on, which may be colouring my perception, and there is clearly much more to come before this tale is wrapped up. I can’t wait to see where Joron, Maes, and the Tide Child go next.
If you don’t know RJ Barker yet, this is just as good a place to start as The Wounded Kingdom, especially if you’re in the mood for some sea-faring daring-do. If you are already a fan, while this is a different sort of story, it’s still very much an RJ Barker book, and I will keep reading those for as long as he keeps writing them.