The Bone Ships: best in class fantasy

Book cover: The Bone Ships - RJ BarkerWhen Lucky Meas seizes the Tide Child from Joron Twiner, she turns his understanding of the world on its head. The Tide Child is a ship of the dead – but what Meas has planned will see them die heroes or the worst sort of traitors…

The Bone Ships called to me from the first time I heard the synopsis, and its siren song only grew louder after a passionate in-person pitch from RJ at Worldcon. Still, I kept delaying reading it: first because I hated Age of Assassins (sorry RJ), and later because I dipped into the first chapter and realised I was too tired to engage fully with its gorgeous, uncompromising world-building.

And trust me, you want to because this is a tour de force from start to finish.

It takes courage to start your book with a character drowning in self-loathing and giving the reader nothing but reasons to despise him. Joron Twiner is pitiable, at best, and the contrast with the effortless skill and practised leadership of Lucky Meas bites deep. Her disdain mirrored my own, but when she spares Joron’s life and unexpectedly makes him her second in command, it’s clear that either she sees something about Joron that he can’t see himself or that she has some devious plan.

Or both. Both is good.

Yep, it’s both.

Needless to say, Joron has uncharted depths – he just needs a push and a good example to explore them. After his unpromising introduction, he makes an excellent narrator and a heartwarming companion through a chillingly ruthless world. He’s younger than his practised alcoholism suggests and relatively fresh to the black ships of the condemned. Barker spins his story expertly: no exposition, no backstory, just a steady drip of details that slowly round out his characters and world.

As Meas shapes the Tide Child‘s convict crew into a proud, disciplined force, Joron blossoms into a compassionate, clever if lonely young man. I found his tentative friendships and earned loyalties deeply rewarding; even though objectively I didn’t particularly like any of the characters, I was utterly absorbed by their journey and their relationships.

If The Bone Ships is a satisfying coming of age tale, Joron’s character-building almost plays second fiddle to the glorious world-building. The tree-scarce Hundred Isles live and die by their great bone ships, but the arakeesians they once hunted to build them are long dead. Now the islanders recycle the bones of old ships and rebuild on an ever smaller scale, their fleet protected by the souls of murdered babies (yes, things get dark fast). They fight an unending war with the neighbouring Gaunt Islands over dwindling resources, stealing bones and babies to keep them afloat.

The world is sprung upon you in a torrent of unfamiliar words and implied mythology, but I was snared early by the prose itself. Barker expertly deploys repetition and rhythm, evoking a sense of oral storytelling and sea shanties that fit his world perfectly. But its the twisting of language to add texture to the world-building that is the true glory. The crew wear fishskin and birdleather, the ships are anchored by a staystone. This is a world poor in wood and iron, rich in superstition. They toil under Skearith’s Eye and fear the Sea-Hag, casting paint for luck and wearing colourful feathers for ornamentation.

Anyone of worth may become shipwife or deckmother, but women rule this vicious, malnourished culture. A woman who proves herself by bearing unblemished children – and by surrendering her firstborn to be sacrificed to the ships – enters the ranks of the Bern, the Hundred Islands’ leadership. A whole boy whose mother survives childbirth is taken to be Kept, guards and studs to the Bern. Hold fast if the ableism is making you seasick: this is RJ Barker, so the plot challenges the grimdark and ableist underpinnings of the world at every turn.

…and my, are there some turns and twists. It’s a good quarter of the way through before the plot takes flight, but when it spread its wings I was sunk in one brief chapter. And here’s the thing: I can’t say anything about that plot without reducing the impact of the reveals that release it, so you’re just going to have to take my word for it that it’s worth waiting for.

This is a majestic piece of storytelling: a fantasy Master and Commander with convicts, bird mages and sea dragons. You can hear the creak of the rigging and the slap of bare feet on slate decks, smell the salt and feel the spray on your face. Expect storms and sea battles, treachery and redemption. Assume that nothing is what it seems and you won’t be disappointed.


I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.