The Bone Ships by RJ Barker

The Bone Ships book cover
Rating 7.0/10
Audacious storytelling, with an original, captivating world

Beautiful cover illustration by Hanna Wood.

Audacious storytelling, with an original, captivating world. After a slow start, I found it increasingly difficult to put this book down and I am on board for more.

RJ  Barker wrote one of my favourite fantasy series of all time, The Wounded Kingdom trilogy. So, when I heard that he was writing a brand-new series called The Tide Child trilogy, I was excited. And by excited, I mean I might have shouted about it to one or two, or seventy random people. I am a huge fan. You may wonder why it did not get a higher rating then. The truth is that this was a very good book in the end, but it took its time in getting there.

The story of The Bone Ships sets sail in a world where two seafaring nations are engaged in a never ending fight  in what has almost become a war of attrition. The ships they sail the dangerous oceans upon are made from the ancient bones of sea dragons, but the last sea dragon was killed centuries ago, and their bones have become a very limited, priceless resource. When a whisper of a rumour is heard that a sea dragon has been sighted, the race to secure the future is on. In the war’s greatest battle, whoever kills the dragon, will have the prize of its bones and the mantle of victor. The two main characters of The Bone Ships, Lucky Meas Gilbryn and Joron Twiner, both recently condemned to a ship of the dead, or Black Ship, have been given the deadly task of capturing the sea dragon or arakeesian as they are commonly known. As truths became forgotten and legends turned to myth, much of what was known about sea dragons, including the methods of their capture has been lost to time though and they have to use every resource available to them in order to have even a minuscule chance at succeeding.

Fascinating,  right?

I really could have loved this book, if it was not for the struggle I had with the first half of the story. RJ Barker has proven before that he can grip you right from the first sentence with an engrossing story and compelling characters. It is something he demonstrated again and again with every entry in the Wounded Kingdom trilogy, and he won many fans for it. With The Bone Ships though, I found myself continuously picking this up, only to put it down again a few pages later. The characters did not pique my interest and the plot meandered. I could not tell you for the life of me what the book was really about or where it was heading. I felt lost. While many fantasy books employ worldbuilding that just drop you into their strange new waters and ask you to sink or swim, they more often than not give you lots of support to stay afloat. This was the deep end my friends. Unfamiliar honorifics, terminology and strange idioms littered the pages. It was a slow read, but I did not give up, for this is an RJ Barker book.

Lo and behold, the tides of change arrived at around the halfway mark.

"UNFURL THE MAINWINGS!"

That great hunt I mentioned earlier? It rears its head here, and becomes the catalyst for The Bone Ships, kick-starting the actual plot. The significant amount of early worldbuilding that so hindered the ebb and flow of the tale becomes a boon, having already laid a solid foundation for everything else to expand upon. Queue the action! While most of the time was spent voyaging on the sea in pursuit of the arakeesian, the chase was not without skirmishes and very captivating ship battles and tactics. And as the pace sped up in tune with the pursuit, the characterization I was expecting from Mr Barker from page one also made a welcome appearance front and center. Where I was apathetic before towards Joron, Meas, the Guillame, the crew, RJ started pulling my strings and I found myself rooting for them and starting to enjoy the journey they were on, just as they themselves were starting to enjoy it. Yes! This was what I had signed up for.

It’s a weird thing trying to review a book that was a tale of two halves. I do not want to focus solely on the individual parts, but rather the whole.  As with all things, I think it is about balance. The author took a risk with his approach, and The Bone Ships comes out on the right side. Just shy of great, it is a very good read and I would definitely recommend it, but with a caveat. Be warned going in that is a slow build, and persevere. The read is worth the time. For an unknown author, I might have put this down. But I trusted RJ to deliver, and in the end he did. A wonderful testament to his skill and talent. I will be ready and waiting when the sequel arrives.

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