The Bone Ships by RJ Barker

Rating: 5 out of 5.

An arakeesian. No one in living memory had seen a living keyshan, and that he may be be one of the few that did filled him with awe. Oh, he had no doubts about the danger of their mission, none at all. But if a man was to die then what a thing to die for. A sea dragon.

RJ Barker’s world in The Bone Ships is a rich, vibrant tapestry. The reader is immersed from the start, drowned in the sheer audacity of the writing. Each sentence had a lot of love poured into it, and it comes across clear as a clarion. The prose is dense with strong slice-of-life elements and creates a sense of “otherness” without crossing over into inaccessible. The use of vernacular is masterful, neither too extreme nor too campy, contributing to the je ne sais quoi that pervades the novel as a whole. The world is strange, disturbing, and filled with dangers the characters must navigate at every step… yet which is entirely normal to them in context.

The book opens with Joron Twiner, son of a poor fisher, drunk on a beach. Joron is Shipwife (captain) to Tide Child – a black, dead ship manned with a crew of men and women condemned to die for their crimes. They live according to the Bernlaw, a set of rules for those at sea, as enforced by the Shipwife. Joron, however, is not fated to remain Shipwife for long when Lucky Meas, daughter of Thirteenbern Gilbryn, ruler of the Hundred Isles, appears before him in his drunken stupor and challenges him to a duel for the two-tailed hat he wears as symbol of his station.

Lucky Meas, in a thoroughly unshocking twist, wins their duel… but breaks tradition by sparing Joron’s life and keeping him on Tide Child as her Deckkeeper (second in command). He’s a proud ship, Tide Child, made of Arakeesian bones – one of the last of the titular bone ships – but he’s been neglected through Joron’s inexperience and incompetence. Meas quickly and immediately assumes command, cleaning and organizing Tide Child as Joron never could. Meas was made for the sea and takes to command with a firm and steady hand. She balances the various factions aboard with competence and grace, viewing each as pieces on a gameboard ready to be put into play – Joron included.

“Clean this deck,” she said, “coil the ropes, stack the shot and tie down the gallowbows. Get Tide Child ready to fly and fight, for that is what we will be doing, make no mistake about it. And I know you are a rough lot, so when the time comes” – her eyes roved around, settled on Kanvey, settled on Cwel, settled on Barlay – “that you feel the need to test me. Then do it like deckchilder, do it to my face.” She rested her hand on the hilt of her sword. “Because the Bern sought to give me to the ships as a light when I was a babe, even after the sea returned me. And in the ceremony the Mother came upon them, and she said I would not die then as sacrifice and I would not die in treachery, you hear? She said I’d die fighting. So unless you question the will of the Maiden or the Mother or the Hag, you’ll pull your blade to my face, ey?” Again her roving eye, her fierce, bird-of-prey features waiting for a reply that never came. Only silence faced her. “Well, to it then! Move!” And they did, and inside Joron something twisted, and he learned – in a moment of shock and revelation – how much he desired what she had, that easy command, the way she barely seemed to feel the weight of the two-tailed hat on her head. “Twiner” – she spat on the deck – “come with me to the great cabin.”

Meas does not leave Joron to flounder and fail in his new role. Although she is a harsh taskmaster and will brook no incompetence, she is excellent at spotting potential. While Joron doesn’t have the skills of a leader yet, she knows how to foster the seed she sees in him. By placing Joron into situations where he must make a choice, by dropping small tidbits of advice, and by orchestrating favorable outcomes, she allows him to grow into the role of Deckkeeper and earn his place aboard the ship.

In the beginning, Meas is focusing on developing the small crew she took from Joron as well as on getting them safely to land where she can augment their numbers. I’ve seen a few people mention this slow pace bothered them, and while that is understandable… I was so drawn in by the gorgeous prose and the fresh feel of the world that I would have happily devoured the full novel even if nothing of particular importance occurred in the whole thing. Even after the plot picks up in the second half, the writing continues to be wonderful. It is a style of writing which lends very well to slice of life, as showcased in the first half of the book. The Bone Ships is carried on the characters, the atmosphere, and the world the reader is thrust into with little explanation or hand-holding. It’s brilliant.

While there is enough familiarity in the world for a reader to latch onto and avoid feeling completely adrift, it’s still a joy to discover more and more of the culture through small hints and off-hand comments throughout the books. It is a fundamentally different world with just enough parallels to echo our own conception of sea and society. Some passages are musing, commenting on aspects of the world from someone who lives in it. Some passages mention a new title, creature, or idea which hasn’t been touched on previously. I often felt as though I was watching the dust and grime of a long-interred fossil being slowly brushed away, word by word, revealing the shape beneath.

We learn about the horrors of the sea – a writhing, fearsome thing in The Bone Ships. It is filled to the seething brim with faceless serpents, longthresh ready to devour you, stinging jellies, bone borers. Our own ocean is more of a threat than it is a death sentence. The sea of The Bone Ships is the more than a threat – it is a promise. To go into the water is to go to a terrible, painful death. That is the Sea Hag’s promise, and the only mercy she might show is that your death be quick.

The sea was full of ugly creatures but beakwyrms were famously among the worst. They looked like the intestine of a kivelly when it was cut from the bird to make sausage: pink, glistening and shot through with blood. The creatures surfed the waves of foam that the boneships kicked up. Each was as thick as a big woman or man and about ten or fifteen paces long, not as big as he had seen but big enough. The wyrms ended bluntly, like fingers, and they had no eyes or nose or any way Joron could see for them to sense the world around them, but Hag knew they had teeth. When attacking, the whole end of a beakwyrm would draw back and reveal it was little more than mouth, row upon row of serrated teeth right back into the darkness of its throat, teeth that could chew through flesh and bone and so noisy to work few. Iridescent frills spiralled around the wyrms’ sickly pallid-pink flesh, propelling them forward in a twisting, shimmering dance through water and wave before the ship. They spun around one another as if they were lovers dancing.

Even the friendlier beasts are strange and awful; the people of the Hundred Isles enslave the Gullaime, a race of bird-like creatures capable of controlling the wind. I am deeply curious about the origins of the Gullaime, which are hinted at but not revealed. Their magic exacts a high price and functions on somewhat mysterious principles, but I question whether even the Gullaime themselves truly understand what they are capable of or if they still have true knowledge of their history. 

The closer Tide Child came to the creature, the more of it he could make out: the filth of its once-white robes, the bright colours of the leaf mask that covered the pits where its eyes had once been, the sharp and predatory curve of its beak. Underneath the robes was an inhuman body, three-toed feet with sharp claws, puckered pink skin tented against brittle bones and punctuated by the white quills of broken feathers. He did not know why the gullaime lost their feathers, only that they did, and he guessed it was due to the filth they chose to live in. The source of all lice and biting creatures on any ship was the windtalker, as any deckchild knew.

In addition to these more beastly touches, it’s always interesting to see matriarchies represented in SFF – especially ones which are flawed and gritty (a la Kameron Hurley’s Del Dame Apocrypha). The Bone Ships does not disappoint in this regard. Birth defects are common and passed down genetically, so when a child is born perfectly it’s a cause for celebration. Babes who are marked, missing limbs, or with other problems are called the Berncast, and occupy the lowest echelon of society. Women who are able to give birth successfully to children who are without flaw may be raised from the Berncast and to the Bern, their rank dictated by the number of successful, perfect births they’ve had. Thirteenbern Gilbryn has brought forth 13 children, more than any other woman, and by virtue of it rules all the Hundred Isles. She has men around her, the Kept, who were born perfect and give her a greater chance of bearing more perfect children. This is also reflected in the gods they revere. The Maiden, the Hag, and the Mother. This is a society ruled by fertility.

Beneath this web, bathed in light, sat Thirteenbern Gilbryn, proud of what she was. Her hair was grey now, and she wore no colour in it – a break with tradition, but she was a woman who did not feel the need to advertise her authority. She wore a skirt, and her flat breasts hung down to her navel, almost covering the stretch marks across her belly, which had been painted in bright colours, the scars of her battles there for all to see: the marks of her power. There was no denying the strength in the Thirteenbern’s body, and that was why she showed it. She flaunted her fertility. This woman was the bringer of thirteen perfect children to the isles and claimed title as mother of all.

This book was deeply impressive on all fronts. I can’t wait for the sequels, and I am incredibly excited to dive into RJ’s earlier books – how is it possible that I’ve been missing out on so much great writing for so long? Fortunately, that will no longer be the case! The Tide Child Trilogy is looking to be one of my favorite recent series, and it is one I fully intend to shout about long and hard. Highly, highly recommended.  

The sage of the Tide Child continues in Call of the Bone Ships, which takes everything I loved in the first installment and uses it to break my poor little heart.

Thank you to Orbit for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review!

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About the Author

RJ Barker lives in Leeds with his wife, son and a collection of questionable taxidermy, odd art, scary music and more books than they have room for. He grew up reading whatever he could get his hands on, and has always been ‘that one with the book in his pocket’. Having played in a rock band before deciding he was a rubbish musician, RJ returned to his first love, fiction, to find he is rather better at that. RJ’s debut epic fantasy novel, AGE OF ASSASSINS was shortlisetd for multiple awards, His new work THE BONE SHIPS, has met with widespread critical acclaim. RJ has also written short stories and historical scripts which have been performed across the country. He has the sort of flowing locks any cavalier would be proud of.

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9 thoughts on “The Bone Ships by RJ Barker

    1. Thanks so much! 2019 has been insanely good overall, though – this book, The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Gideon the Ninth, This is How You Lose The Time War, The Imaginary Corpse… And more I’m forgetting too!

      Liked by 1 person

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