I received this novel from the publisher, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.
R.J. Barker’s previous work, the Wounded Kingdom trilogy, was one of my best recent discoveries, so that once I learned of this new novel, the start of another series, I was beyond eager to read it: once the book became available through the Orbit newsletter I wasted no time in requesting it, and abandoned the story I was reading then in favor of this one.
If the world presented in the Wounded Kingdom is a desolate one, with huge extensions of the land made barren by the indiscriminate use of magic, and people often living on the doorstep of starvation, the one depicted in The Bone Ships is far bleaker and disheartening, not so much because of any environmental concerns, but rather because of the inhabitants’ customs and attitude.
This is a world where seas cover most of the surface, what little land there is formed by groups of islands whose dwellers have split over time into two factions in constant war with each other, a conflict whose origins seem to have been forgotten but that still goes on because of the ingrained hatred between opponents. Where seas rules, wars are fought with ships, and here they are built with the bones of dragons for their strength and buoyancy, but now that the dragons have been hunted to extinction, what few bones remain are prized above all else. As for the people, islanders’ customs decree that anyone born with a physical defect, or from a mother who died in childbirth, is tainted with weak blood and cannot be part of the dominant class, while any firstborn child is always offered in sacrifice and set on a ship as a corpselight – a concept that still gives me chills no matter how many times I read it.
The overall darkness of the background is the main reason I struggled at first with The Bone Ships: I now understand, with hindsight, that the author was setting the stage for the story and that it was important for us readers to see where the characters came from and what made them what they are, but still the first few chapters seemed to drag and what I pictured in my mind’s eye was all in drab, unappealing sepia tones. I know I am not the most patient individual in the world, and that I need to feel an instant connection with a story and its characters to truly enjoy a novel, so I can offer this little morsel of advice: if you get that same disheartening impression, just keep going, because your perseverance will be more than rewarded.
Joron Twiner used to be a fisherman but now circumstances have made him an outcast, and as is the customs of the Isles he’s been assigned to one of the Black Ships, the ships of the dead – vessels that are old and ill-maintained, and whose crews are destined to serve and die for the good of the Isles. Joron is made shipwife (i.e. the captain) of the Tide Child, one of the black ships, a despondent and drunken captain who asks nothing of his equally miserable crew but to be ignored as he ignores them, until the day in which ‘Lucky’ Meas Gilbryn, a famous boneship shipwife now fallen in disgrace, challenges him for the captaincy of the Child and vows to shape him and the rest of the complement into a crew worthy of respect. Meas has been given a mission: what could possibly be the last dragon in the world has been sighted, and the Tide Child tasked with the difficult – and maybe impossible – mission to secure it and in so doing possibly change the balance of war. Success might even mean the lifting of the sentence that condemned them all to a ship of the dead.
From here on the story blends two separate threads, the breath-taking adventure of the search for the Arakeesian – the fabled dragon – and the characters’ journey from a motley band of uncaring individuals to a cohesive, proud crew. The sea voyage itself is a joy to follow, with vibrant descriptions that turn the strong sea breezes, the smell of the salty spray and the creak of the ship’s bones into almost physical experiences, enhanced by the exotic terms used to describe the vessel’s sections or the crew’s roles – as an example, a ship, contrary to normal usage, is referred to as “he” and therefore the captain becomes a “shipwife”, irrespective of gender. And then there are the strange, dangerous sea beasts that mean certain death for any sailor fallen overboard, or the weird avian creature, the gullaime, who summons the winds to fill the ship’s sails, not to mention the dragons themselves, creatures of beauty and grace who seem to possess an uncanny intelligence.
Unsurprisingly, characters remain the strong point of the story though, even when they require some time to make themselves understood and appreciated: Joron is a prime example of this instance, because of his initial attitude, the certainty of his worthlessness, the lack of interest in others beyond the misery he wrapped around himself. And yet there is a small part of him that wants to believe, that is kindled by Meas’ rough handling and blazes into confidence – in himself first and then in the crew, in the sense of belonging and mutual loyalty that the shipwife can inspire in each and every one of them, teaching them they can be much more than the sum of their parts. It will be fascinating to see where his journey will lead him as the story progresses, and how far he will travel from the morose young man wasting his days in idleness and drink.
But of course it’s Meas who held the greater part of my attention: strong, capable and with an abrasive demeanor that goes well with her scruffy appearance and hides a keen mind and an iron will, but also a capacity for understanding and compassion she keeps under tight control – although at times it surfaces together with one or her rare smiles. A true creature of the seas, she lives for and breathes with her ship and crew, and through her example – that of a woman born to the highest rank and now lowered to the captaincy of a Black Ship – they learn how to take pride in their accomplishments and the fulfilment of their duty. She is called “Lucky Meas” and at some point we learn how she gained that nickname, and yet what she teaches her people is that their fame, their luck if you want, is not something they can expect to be given, but must take – earn – for themselves. A character larger than life at time, perhaps, but one I will enjoy meeting again in the next books.
I would like to close this review by mentioning the beautiful images – miniatures in truth – decorating the beginning of each chapter, that add a special quality to the story itself, and to advise you to keep your eyes (and ears…) open for the arrival of Black Orris. You will know what I mean once you get there 😉
If you are already fans of R.J. Barker’s works, you will enjoy this; if you are not… what are you waiting for?