The Bone Ships by RJ Barker. Review.

The Bone Ships by RJ Barker

Orbit, pb, £8.99

Reviewed by Megan Leigh

I first came across RJ Barker at a FantasyCon where he gave one of the most entertaining author readings I’ve ever experienced. It was a perfect example of the author being their best marketing asset. I was sold.

Age of Assassins was the first book in Barker’s Wounded Kingdom trilogy and the beginning of a love affair with his writing. The series was utterly refreshing, following the protagonist across several decades as he grew and changed. The characters were exquisitely painted, the plots enthralling and complex, and each book felt whole whilst satisfying part of a greater narrative. As such, it should come as no surprise that I was practically chomping at the bit for The Bone Ships.

Kicking off a new planned trilogy, The Bone Ships swaps the traditional land-locked fantasy tale for the harsh mistress that is the sea. We follow the story of Joron, a man condemned to a life on the Black Ships among criminals and no-hopers. His drunken fog of an existence is rudely interrupted by a naval legend, Lucky Meas, who takes command of Black Tide from Joron. The ragtag crew of rejects is then charged to protect the sea dragon, last of its kind, as it makes its way through the Hundred Isles. But the Black Tide isn’t the only ship after the beast, whose survival could be the turning point in a long and bloody war.

“Hag’s breath, he wanted to drink.

Maiden’s blessing, he wanted to.”

Barker’s world-building is so accomplished you don’t realise how much new information you’ve soaked in until you are drowning in it (in the best possible way). The society in The Bone Ships is as inventive as it is well-developed. Barker builds a matriarchy, focusing on the pure power exhibited by women and their ability to give birth. Small, seemingly-throwaway cultural details – such as referring to ships in the masculine – layer to build a rich world full of nuance and depth.

The truly magical element of The Bone Ships is the gullaime. Part skeksis, part pirate mascot, the gullaime makes up for any personality failings in the protagonist ten-fold. Getting to know the gullaime brought me so much joy I was like a giddy kid on Christmas morning.

While The Bone Ships’ world is possibly even richer than The Wounded Kingdom, I found the characters less engaging. Joron is a protagonist in the vein of Fitzgerald’s Nick in The Great Gatsby – more of an observer than someone who drives the plot. Would the story be all that different without Joron? Perhaps not. Lucky Meas, on the other hand, is a wonderfully fun character who I particularly liked for the representation of older women in positions of power and seeking out adventure. And while by the end of the novel I was thoroughly invested, it took me longer to fall in love with the characters than in Barker’s first trilogy.

“Shall pay true honour to the Maiden, Mother and Hag. To go against this is punishable by death.

[…]

And woman may lay with woman and man may lay with man, but woman may not lay with man and risk a child aboard ship. To go against this is punishable by death.”

On occasion, the pace is halted by indulgent technical relaying of all the actions required to make the ship go. This is one of those aspects that will depend on whether you have an interest in boats, but I found the detail bogged down the action when I should have been swept along by the tension of the scene.

Verdict: The Bone Ships is one of the most delightful and refreshing fantasy reads I have ever picked up. While I may have some reservations about the bland protagonist and a slow start, the world and supporting characters make the novel something to treasure.