The Bone Ships by RJ Barker

The Bone Ships book cover
Rating 7.8/10
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.
Eon Van Aswegen, 7/10

In The Bone Ships RJ Barker gives us a story filled with unique world building and engaging characters. In a world where ships of war are primarily made from the bones of sea dragons, the two political powers continue to scrape together dragon bone though it has been ages since they have found any new dragons to harvest. But when news surfaces of a possible living dragon, the race is on to secure it as a military resource.

Both the world building and characters of The Bone Ships really shine. You have this unique world that is absolutely fascinating. It's engaging and deep at every turn. You have political machinations, not only within a single country, but between and within two enemy nations. There are secrets, plots within plots, and questions of a political nature that play a role throughout the novel. It's not only the politics of the nations that are impressive, but the very flora and fauna of the world itself. The world building here is incredible, from the descriptions of foliage, to the bone ships themselves, to the islands of the archipelago, to the religion, to names for kin, names for nautical terms, Barker crafts an entirely unique world but you never feel lost and it never feels like there is an info dump. For instance, while warships are made from dragon bone, smaller fishing boats are made from hardened plants - and this has major repercussions for the plot of the book, as simple as it sounds at first glance. Barker does a wonderful job describing the colorful plants of the archipelago, helping the reader visualize a truly lush world. Of course, there are also creatures that play a role, from the sea dragons themselves to other water beasts to the bird-like gullaime. The gullaime are also the magic users of Barker's world. I loved the tidbits we learned about them and their culture, and I look forward to learning much more in future novels set in this world. Beyond the world building though, the characters are very well drawn and engaging. Barker took a risk in allowing us to see the story not through multiple viewpoint characters, or even through a single viewpoint of the captain of the ship, but rather through the eyes of the first officer. I think this makes the story more compelling because Joron has a great deal of growing to do as a person. While Meas is interesting and appropriately badass throughout the novel, she also knows who she is and how to get things done. While she is often driving the plot, seeing things through Joron's eyes allows for much more character growth. I thoroughly enjoyed watching this growth happen and seeing Joron's perspective on having his life turned upside down by Meas' arrival helped hooked me from the start. He is a flawed but likeable character, and that combination can be difficult to craft. Barker does it with aplomb. There are a bevy of side characters as well, each with their own struggles and arcs. Barker does a good job of letting us get to know them as people, but make no mistake, this is Joron's story. Meas steals the show from time to time, certainly, but Joron is still the main character. The prose itself is cinematic at points, doing a wonderful job of describing the action and creating tension during battle sequences.

I do have a couple criticisms. Because we see the entire story through Joron's eyes, there were moments when I was a little confused by the political situation. Some things were left perhaps a little too mysterious. This makes sense, since Joron doesn't know much about the plots within plots within plots that appear to be going on just under the surface. But it did mean I was left scratching my head occasionally. All the new words for sailing jargon that Barker uses can be a little confusing, at times. Not enough to fully jar you out of the story, but enough that I wasn't always certain what was being referred to. This may be more my issue, however, as I'm not overly familiar with real world nautical terms either. Finally, there were a couple places where I felt like the pacing was uneven. Action scenes can be followed by noticeable lulls, rather than more smoothly flowing or building on one another. This is particularly true in the first half of the book, where it begins with a slow build early and then feels like a series of mountains and valleys as you approach the middle. This largely corrects itself by the second half, and for those who don't mind the slow build, it will likely be nearly unnoticeable. For those who prefer faster builds, however, sticking with it will be rewarded.

The Bone Ships is one of the best swashbuckling fantasies I've ever read. With world building that is second to none and an engaging, flawed, and likeable main character, this is one you won't want to miss. Enjoy it and be ready for the sequel's release!
Calvin Park, 8.5/10

This The Bone Ships book review was written by and Calvin Park

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