Call of the Bone Ships

Book cover: The Call of the Bone Ships - RJ BarkerA year after saving the wakewyrm, the resistance port of Safeharbour is raided by the Bern; more arakeesians are sighted, putting the Hundred Isles back on a war footing; and the toxic cargo of a merchant ship suggests the Thirteenbern has even darker plots afoot. The battle for peace teeters on a knife-edge – and there’s a mutiny brewing aboard the Tide Child...


The Bone Ships was one of my favourite books of 2019 and as RJ Barker recently won the BFS award for it, it was past time I caught up on the sequel. And a worthy sequel it is: another slice of brilliantly-realised maritime fantasy that delivers more sea-borne hijinks, mysterious magic and shipboard friction whilst raising the stakes.

We rejoin Tide Child and his fractious crew (and I will never get used to the ships being male, even though it makes perfect sense for the worldbuilding) in the midst of peril at sea. In no time at all, I had the wind in my hair and the spray in my face. If you don’t actually like books set on boats then this series is perhaps not for you, but as a long-time fan of Master and Commander I was instantly in my element. A year or more under Lucky Meas’s command has transformed Tide Child into a fleet ship: tidy, brisk and ready for more or less anything.

The tense opening underlines that the sea is as dangerous and implacable a force as the Bern and showed me just how much detail I’d forgotten from book one. Thankfully, Barker recaps the key details (how did I miss – or forget – Joron and Dinyl becoming lovers?) whilst dreaming up new ways to make his dark matriarchy even grimmer. It also introduces my favourite thread of this second novel: the gullaime and the creepy windshorn, who the birdmage considers traitors for their role in oppressing the gullaime. I delighted in the gullaime as it flitted from towering rages and startling aggression to childlike curiosity and swaggering pride at being an officer. It’s easy to love, but as events unfold it became increasingly tempting to wonder about the secrets it’s clearly keeping. I appreciated the many ways in which Barker surprised me with the gullaime; with one book to go, there’s still layers of intricacy to peel away in search of hidden truths. Poor Joron.

Poor Joron neatly sums up another major thread. If book one saw Joron Twiner come of age, book two sees him blossom as a commander. I enjoyed the growing connection between Joron, Farys and Anzir – the nub of a crew loyal to him as much as to Meas, who look up to Joron rather than judge him for his fear. Afraid or not, this maturing Joron volunteers for terrifying duties because they’re the right thing to do. He’s the admirable officer who is inevitably despised by rogue elements of the crew for just how much he’s changed, their fear of Meas too great to allow them to hate her in quite the same way. Meas has forged an able commanding officer – and the gullaime is slowly shaping him into an entirely different sort of weapon.

The result is a narrative in which Joron is built up only to be broken down then built up and broken down and built up until we leave him boiled down to a capable man fuelled by rage, ready to do whatever it takes to save his shipwife and end the war. Including, I rather suspect, burn the whole world down (which it so richly deserves, in so many ways).

It’s a hell of a ride (literally, frequently) and taken as a whole it’s thrilling. The characters are compelling and unpredictable and caught at my heartstrings in unexpected ways. The many-layered plot introduces new threats and ever darker secrets. The tightly-focused action scenes are brilliant, reduced to the desperate view of one man at the heart of the maelstrom and delivered in sentences as short and laboured as Joron’s breath.

But for all the heart-stopping action, Call felt surprisingly slow-paced while I was reading it. There’s a lot of sailing for very little getting anywhere (an accurate portrayal of travel by tall ship, I realise), interspersed with intermittent drama that gets the blood racing again. I’m tempted to call it episodic, although perhaps it’s more apt to accuse it of ebbing and flowing like the tide. Either way, it took a long time for the carefully-constructed elements to coalesce into a big picture that finally felt as urgent as book one’s straightforwardly dramatic ‘save the last sea dragon’ pitch. Once it does, Call of the Bone Ships is fierce and atmospheric, pushing the stakes ever higher as we discover more about the Thirteenbern’s plan and the secrets of the gullaime. And in retrospect, it’s magnificent, a book that begs to be reread (which I plan to do ahead of reading The Bone Ship’s Wake).

Nonetheless, it feels very much a sequel – not only will you want to have read the first book before embarking on it (ahem), it also ends on a cliffhanger (dammit RJ) – so you could perhaps be forgiven for waiting to binge books two and three back to back.

So: very much a middle book, but a good one.

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