Book Review: The Bone Ships by RJ Barker

Author: RJ Barker
Publisher: Orbit
Publish Date: September 24, 2019
Print Length: 512 pages

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Official Synopsis
Two nations at war. One prize beyond compare.

For generations, the Hundred Isles have built their ships from the bones of ancient dragons to fight an endless war. The dragons disappeared, but the battles for supremacy persisted.

Now, the first dragon in centuries has been spotted in far-off waters, and both sides see a chance to shift the balance of power in their favor. Because whoever catches it will win not only glory but the war.

My Review
When I first started my blog and book-related Twitter account I kept seeing this book pop up over and over in my Twitter feed. So I made a mental note to read it since the commentary surrounding it were overwhelmingly positive. Sailing on the open seas with a doomed crew on a mission? Ships made from the bones of long extinct dragons? The excitement that they might not actually be extinct? Sign me up!

I do admit that it took me a little while to truly get into the book. This is the first installment of a trilogy, which means it takes time to introduce the reader to the characters and the world. (Plus I was also in the middle of unpacking after moving house, so that was a major distraction for me.) However, that slow start (in my opinion) is worth it as you keep reading. There is some serious character development by the time you reach the end.

Enter Joron Twiner, an apathetic, drunk shipwife cursed to spend the rest of his life on a black ship, the Tide Child. Once you’ve been sentenced to a ship such as this, there’s no leaving it. His crew is no better, for each committed some offense, deemed unfit to remain among the rest of society. They have little respect for Joron, nor does he work to deserve it. It’s unsurprising that Joron wakes and finds himself hungover, challenged to a duel by Lucky Meas for the position of shipwife on the Tide Child. And it’s equally unsurprising that he loses.

But it’s not all for naught. Joron unexpectedly gets to remain on Tide Child as the deckeeper, who’s second to the shipwife. Bewildered, embarrassed, and hoping to one day regain control of Tide Child, Joron joins Meas on a high seas mission. I can’t tell you for what though, because spoilers!

Arguably, I think the strongest aspect of this book is the character development of Joron and the crew on the Tide Child. The behavior and competency of a ship’s crew is a reflection on the shipwife’s leadership. Joron was a terrible shipwife, largely thanks to emotional distress. Because he didn’t act as a leader, his crew couldn’t care less about him. Thus they kept only their own interests in mind. Once Meas takes over we see a transformation in both Joron and the crew. As they encounter danger, they learn to work together and trust each other. The pace of this developemt is slow, but realistic. RJ Barker shows us these transformations rather than tells us about them; I very much prefer this method of story telling. It makes me feel like I’m hovering and observing everything as it happens. Barker masterfully shows us these subtle changes through Joron’s thoughts and his observations of the crew.

The world-building also takes a front seat next to the character development. Barker throws the reader right into the society of the Hundred Isles. There’s not an up front information “dump.” Rather, Barker introduces us to the culture and concepts organically through conversation or events. I think this is another reason why it took a while for me to find my groove with this book. There is so much new terminology (shipwife, deckeeper, corpselight), not only because this is a fantasy book, but also because I’m not familiar with how one runs a ship and what the terms are analogous to in real life. So a huge ‘thank you’ to the author for including an appendix of terminology to which the reader can refer.

Of course, the farther along I read, the more familiar I became with everything. I was super intrigued by the Guillaime, which are a race of magicians that can control winds and are therefore valuable to have on a ship. The guillaime on the Tide Child is ornery and uncooperative, however. So Meas tasks Joron with befriending it so it will perform as a member of the crew. I’d say more, but, spoilers! Equally as captivating, but in a sad and disturbing way, is the culture around firstborn children and the women who bear them. The women who produce healthy firstborns are put on a pedestal, but at a price that I think all would find distressing.

Anyway, my review doesn’t do justice to the immersive, multi-faceted character development and world- and society-building by Barker. This is definitely an epic adventure and I look forward to reading the rest of the trilogy, should my neverending TBR list oblige.

Rating: 4.5/5
Content warnings: battle scenes, death, non-descriptive mention of infant death
Reading format: Library paperback

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