THE BONE SHIPS by RJ Barker. Review.

THE BONE SHIPS by RJ Barker.

Orbit Books. p/back. £8.99.

Reviewed by Elloise Hopkins.

Joron Twiner, shipwife of the Tide Child, should never have held that title, but hold it he does… at least for now. A challenge has been issued, one Joron has waited for and dreaded every day since he first donned the hat, and now it comes from none other than Lucky Meas. She captains the Arakeesian Dread, named after the sea dragons that give their bones to the ships of the dead, and now she wants Twiner’s hat. Perhaps the biggest question on his lips, and the lips of all of his unfortunate and resentful crew members, is: why is Lucky Meas joining the black ships?

She will take his ship easily; he already knows that. It will not be so easy to get it back. She is infamous, cruel, unbeatable and on go the rumours, but Joron does not yet realise just how invaluable Lucky Meas will prove to be. To him, to his crew, to his ship, and even to his failing windtalker. Under her tutelage, Joron may just get the teaching he needs to quietly work his way back from the dead ships.

The Bone Ships is the first book in a new, contemporary, piratical fantasy that manages to pay homage to the epic films of old whilst serving up a fast-paced and dark narrative that sits well alongside recent favourites. The story is told solely from Joron’s point of view, and his back story is trickled out at just the right pace, allowing us to understand why a man, who by all accounts should have lived a simple life as a fisherman, ended up exiled and disgraced, captaining a ship of the dead.

Barker creates a unique world, rich in description and well-developed down to the last intricate detail, allowing the reader to delight in the existence of dragons and swashbuckling pirates in a delightfully grimdark tale. Seen through Joron’s eyes, Lucky Meas is large on the page, as forbidding as she is nurturing to our protagonist, and the next book in The Tide Child Trilogy promises even more of her cunning and temper to come.     

The rest of the cast is equally well described, and the constant underlying threat that Joron feels comes through as the story unfolds. There are many familiar elements in here – perhaps none more so than ships crafted from the carcasses of dead dragons – but they cleverly feel like a humble tribute rather than a simulacrum and together form something that is fresh and enjoyable enough to be a success.