I received this novel from Orbit Books through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.
From the very first book in RJ Barker’s The Wounded Kingdom series I knew I had encountered a talented new voice in the fantasy genre, so I should not have been surprised that his new saga The Tide Child would follow on the same footsteps, but once again I discovered how this author is able to surpass himself with each new work he publishes: Call of the Bone Ships is the gripping sequel to an outstanding first volume, and it drew me into this world even more deeply than its predecessor did.
We’re back aboard the Tide Child, the black ship of the forsaken among the islanders peopling this world, and her captain – pardon me, shipwife – Meas Gilbryn is bent on ending the long war between her people, the dwellers of the Hundred Isles, and the Gaunt Islanders, and to this effect she had a hand in the creation of a place, Safeharbour, where both groups could live together. It’s a short-lived dream, however, and soon enough Meas, her second Joron and the whole crew must face both the threat to their own existence and the mystery of the mass abductions of weak and powerless people, carried in slave ships to an unknown destination and killed for some dark, loathsome purpose. This is as much of the story as I feel comfortable in sharing, because to say more would deprive any reader of the joy and terror of discovering what this book has in store for them.
With Call of the Bone Ships you don’t need to choose between a character- or plot-driven story, because you can have both: there are long sea chases, battles, mutinies and a dreadful mystery to be solved in what at times becomes an undercover operation, complete with double-dealing agents; there are the delightful details of everyday life at sea on a very peculiar ship that’s crafted out of dragon bones; and again one can meet amazing creatures, or terrifying ones. But what carries this novel more than anything else is the strength of its characters: in the series’ opener they were introduced and we got to know them a little, together with the fascinating world they inhabit, but here – now that the needs for background have been fulfilled – they are given more than enough room to expand. And shine.
“Lucky” Meas moves a little to the sidelines here, although she remains the strong, determined leader capable of taking a motley group of rejects and turning them into a loyal and proud crew: one might say that she is the heart and soul of the ship and the inspiration that drives them to move forward even in the face of certain death. But here she leaves more room for Joron Twiner, her deck-keeper or first officer, to grow into a more rounded, many-faceted character. Where he started his journey as a despondent, defeated individual, he slowly gained more confidence in himself and a measure of pride in his accomplishments under Meas’ tutelage: in this book we see him not only reach new levels of self-respect and wisdom, but also inspire the same feelings in the rest of the crew as he earns their own consideration and loyalty.
Perversely enough, though, this newfound connection with the rest of the crew and the way he has come to care for them – shown in many little gestures of appreciation and understanding – leave him exposed, vulnerable: now that he has something worthwhile to lose, he’s bound to suffer under the cruel blows of chance as he was not when he had nothing of value he could call his own. And in the course of the story Joron will lose much, in more ways than one, which will remind us that this is a harsh, unforgiving world, that always exacts a price for the small favors it chooses to bestow on people.
Together with Joron, we gain a better understanding of a few secondary characters aboard the Tide Child, and if some of them are not exactly friendly or trustworthy, it all adds to the delightful variety offered by this crew and enhances the story with little and big details that build on its substance. Among these characters, however, the one that stands out more is that of the Gullaime, the avian creature able to summon the winds necessary to propel the ship, or to tame the fury of storms. The first glimpse we were given of the Gullaime in the first book was that of a wretched creature, kept in the darkness of the hold and summoned only when need arose, but otherwise considered as a useful tool rather than a living being: the different outlook imposed by Meas has now morphed the Tide Child’s Gullaime into an assertive, curious individual and a valued member of the ship’s complement, but it’s in his interactions with Joron that the Windtalker sparkles with intriguing life and opens the way to a number of questions that simply beg to find an answer. There is a so-far barely explained bond between the Gullaime and Joron, one that takes the form of a pervasive song whose effects have been touched on but not completely disclosed, and yet this takes second place to the emotional connection between the two of them that seems to go beyond the confines of mere respect and friendship. I am eager to have this mystery unveiled, but for now I count myself very happy to have witnessed the many, meaningful interactions between the two of them.
There is a great amount of emotional content in Call of the Bone Ships because it offers a number of poignant personal interactions, made even more so by the contrast with the harsh shipboard life and the drama of the quest in which Meas, Joron and the crew are involved. Together with the captivating descriptions of life at sea, of powerful storms and creature-infested waters, these moments gift the book with a lyrical quality that runs seamlessly throughout the story and turns it into a compelling and exciting read. If you have not read The Tide Child series yet, do yourselves a favor and pick it up: you will not regret it.