Call of the Bone Ships by RJ Barker – Book Review
I’m having a bumper year for sequels, it must be said. This was my second-most-anticipated one, partly because I only had to wait half as long for it, and having read it I find myself even more impatient for book three.
Because, fair warning, Call of the Bone Ships is very much a “middle book” sort of sequel – not a sequel like Hollow Empire that looks to “repeat the trick”, taking the characters, settings, and themes of book one and re-running them in a new context to tell another fairly standalone episode. Rather, Call takes the setup, the origin story of the first book – a rousing tale of nautical adventure in a bleak, unforgiving, and very alien world – and shakes and smashes it up, along with the characters we’ve grown to love, while also moving the trilogy forwards at pace towards a climactic final book.
Call begins quite some time after book one, skipping over the gentler second book you might have had in a longer series, of the growth of Lucky Maes Gilbryn’s revolution against the oppressive and brutal society of the Hundred Isles (and its neighbouring Gaunt Islands), of the founding of the sanctuary port where they are trying to build their better alternative, of the continued training and growth of Joron Twiner and the rest of the crew of Tide Child into a confident and (mostly) cohesive unit. The chase of the last arakeesian sea-dragon, so vital to the arc of the first book, is almost forgotten and (slight spoiler) somewhat irrelevant.
No, now there is something even worse afoot, and the opening scenes open up this new mystery, sending Joron and the crew on a new (if related) quest, and into greater peril – and more frequently – than they did in book one (and there were quite some battles in that!). This isn’t to say that the change of course, as it were, in this book comes out of the blue. The first book had only begun to uncover elements of the larger plot – in a way, establishing who and what the series would be about, but leaving the question of how they would tackle the challenge unsettled (no council at Rivendell here). So, having hooked us with book one, Call of the Bone Ships was always going to be the book that set the course for the rest of the series.
And wow, does it ever.
The series has always promised a blend of nautical adventure and Epic Fantasy, two things that are perhaps infrequently combined (certainly not often enough for me!), and I was lulled by the tropes of the former into expecting something more like an episode in those lengthy naval sagas, where each book follows a fairly standard pattern and advances the overall plot (such as there is) very little. I was very forcefully reminded this is not only a trilogy, but an epic fantasy trilogy – and that’s not a bad thing. The author has pulled off quite a feat in blending those two so that fans of either will get a lot out of this, while fans of both (like me) will be in bookish heaven (even if I did want a few more sea-battles).
Having begun with the shocking revelation, the book barely lets up as the shipwife and crew of Tide Child chase answers – and vengeance. And of course, all is not straightforward or smooth sailing, sending the ship hither and thither across the seas, tossed by storm and setbacks. There’s plenty of action, a good dose of subterfuge, and a few more sea dragons to boot. The pace is fairly relentless, the pattern of the book a series of sharp peaks rather than a slow build towards a single climax (like in book one), and some moments that should be impactful get a bit lost in the drive to the next goal or revelation. But there is still an assured hand at the helm through these rough seas, which you trust are by design.
The travails are particularly hard on (as you might expect) our Joron Twiner, but also on the previously unshakeable Lucky Maes. Her role is somewhat diminished here, however, as Joron now has more independence, and grows as a protagonist. This space also allows some of the supporting characters, old and new, more time to shine, enriching the narrative and even (in several sections that skillfully dip into other POVs) stealing the spotlight for a while. However, as some come to the fore, others recede – and even die, because life, let alone war, in the Hundred Isles is brutal and unforgiving. But there are also delights, like getting to know the bird-like gullaime – and some of its kin – better. The worldbuilding continues to be truly spectacular, it must be said.
And then, all too soon, it ends – and, second warning, if not exactly on a cliffhanger, then at a point where a lot is in the balance and book three* can’t come soon enough. But that’s more an occupational hazard than a criticism!
Call or the Bone Ships is out on 26 November. Thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for the ARC.
* Book three is apparently called The Bone Ship’s Wake and honestly that title should be enough to make you want to read the first two right now, who needs reviews?