A year after the sack of Sleighthulme, Joron is riddled with disease and dismay. As the Black Pirate, he is dreaded throughout the Hundred Isles, but he is no closer to finding Meas. How far will he go for his shipwife – and will she forgive what he has done in her name?
The Bone Ships stormed into my top reads of 2019 for its meticulous world-building and rewarding character arcs. Since the harrowing sequel I have been both breathless and terrified to see how RJ Barker would end his epic nautical fantasy.
“It’ll all end in fire and teeth“Coxward
Bonewright Coxward may be raving with the bone rot, but his early prediction was worryingly plausible. I noted that Call of the Bone Ships shaped Joron into a competent leader with every motivation to burn the world down – so I wasn’t entirely surprised to find The Bone Ship’s Wake opened with him doing just that. We rejoin the Tide Child raiding the Hundred Isles in search of their captured shipwife and giving their victims the choice of being pressganged or executed. A year in, they’re no closer to finding Meas, although the Thirteenbern has been forced to withdraw the Fleet behind the protective ring of the inner isles. Joron’s choices are narrowing to a suicidal assault on Bernshulme or summoning a keyshan – but he is certain that doing so will mean a death sentence for Meas.
The Bone Ship’s Wake is another slow-burn drama, as interested in the convictions and mental health of its troubled protagonists as in its tapestry of dark prophecies and bloody politics. For all the Black Ships’ victories against the Bern in the previous books, they are in deep waters now: reliant on uncertain allies in the Gaunt Islands who offer much praise but little help (and no charity; they charge dearly for repair and resupply), driven to despair by the loss of Meas and other loved ones at Sleighthulme. While Joron Twiner has come a long way since we first met him drowning in booze and self-loathing, he questions his every move. Does he truly know best? What will be the cost? Is it what Meas would do?
Not one of them knew that he worried with every step that he would slip and make a fool of himself. That he worried he would slip constantly, whether on land or sea, though less physically and more in his duty. Always waiting to fall.
The imposter syndrome provokes much sympathy, but Joron has reasons to doubt himself. The bone rot is creeping up on him, its urges toward violent paranoia less easy to spot than the physical ravages that Joron hides beneath his scarf. Stir in his conviction that Meas is alive only because the Thirteenbern believes she can summon the arakeesians – making it vital that he does not prove her wrong by raising one – and the first act is a protracted drama of avoiding the inevitable.
But such drama. The Bone Ship’s Wake is about resisting in the face of all odds, starting with a deadly deception and drawn-out ship pursuit. The play by play homage to Master and Commander (one of my favourite films) wasn’t quite enough to stop me finding it a bit slow, but I was soon sucked in by the thrill of evasive manoeuvres through fog banks haunted by icebergs and sea monsters. Act Two switches tack to deliver a high-stakes mission – a hand-picked few creeping into Bernshulme – that focuses on matters of love and loyalty before the epic confrontations of the finale.
That second act is where the book came alive for me. While I love the detailing of his world, Barker’s biggest achievement in this trilogy has been in the painstaking development of characters and relationships. I loved that the final volume is defined by the ties that have been forged aboard the Tide Child; bonds that are relentlessly tested as Joron and the crew are repeatedly tempted to waver in their commitment to Meas and to one another.
I also appreciated some overdue perspective on our Hundred Isles antagonists, who have previously felt a little one-dimensionally Evil (with a capital E). Haunted by the terrible acts he has committed in pursuit of Meas, Joron can acknowledge that life is complicated and that his enemies are perhaps trying their best within their own frame of reference. In the end, there’s room to understand their crimes as a failure of imagination rather than as acts of purest malice. This works so much better for me: far from being an easy out – there’s no forgiveness or lessening of their sins here – it acts as a searing indictment of their characters and an exhortation to believe in better; to do better.
Which brings us to the final act, where our damaged souls battle it out to set the direction of their world as the gullaime’s prophecies close in on them (and how have I got this far without mentioning the gullaime? Avoiding spoilers, that’s how. Let’s just say I was repeatedly reduced to yelling nothing but vowels). If our villains have failed at imagination, our heroes have nothing to cling to but hope; expect a rousing conclusion made all the more magical for never flinching from embracing the essential humanity – rather than mythical heroism – of its protagonists.
Naval fantasy always sinks, right? Not this time. Bloody brilliant.
I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. THE BONE SHIP’S WAKE is out now from Orbit in ebook, audiobook and paperback.