It’s the UK release day for one of the most exciting books of the year, The Bone Ships by RJ Barker! Are you ready for your buckles to be swashed?
Book: The Bone Ships by RJ Barker
Read before: No
Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by Orbit Books. All opinions my own.
Ah, I loved this! I was already a huge fan of RJ Barker – his Wounded Kingdom series is fantastic, and he’s a really nice person to boot. But The Bone Ships blew me away with its imaginative worldbuilding, intricate character work, and most of all, how much fun it was to read! Though technically the characters aren’t pirates, this has all the swashbuckling fun of an old-fashioned pirate romp, but with sea serpents, angry magic birds, and ships made of bones and filled with the condemned. There’s a lot of depth and hints of darkness to come, but also a lot of pure adventure…
The opening scene, where our main character Joron Twiner is challenged for his shipwife’s (ie, captain’s) hat by the notorious Lucky Meas, is spectacular at setting the scene. Joron’s a terrible shipwife, an ex-fisherman with no naval training, drinking himself into oblivion so he doesn’t have to face the reality of being forced to command a black ship manned by criminals and built from the bones of an arakeesian, a sea serpent. Meas overhauls the lacklustre Tide Child with formidable strength, and we follow Joron as he is first dragged, and then encouraged, back into service of the ship, and becomes a key player in Meas’s plans, which involve the last arakeesian…
I loved the worldbuilding here, from the overt to the subtle. Most noticeable for me, though one of the quietest elements on page, was that all the unnecessarily gendered expressions of our world are flipped on their heads: we have “women and men”, “girls and boys”, ships referred to as “he”. It’s a small change, but says a lot about the gender politics of this world, which is explored further in the reverence given to women and mothers by Hundred Isles society. Much more obvious is the fact that this is a world that has no trees, and therefore has no wood – the effect on building, weapons, and ships is fascinating! There are plants which can be made into a sort of leather, and plants which act something like bamboo, but there’s no strong, solid wood, and it’s really shaped the world. You begin to see why the ships are made of bone, and why that bone, as the only seaworthy substance in the world, might well be so valuable.
Joron is a compelling viewpoint character, and RJ handles his transition from drunk and despondent to confident and competent extremely well – this is a story that shows how keeping up appearances can lead to development of skills. Though he’s pessimistic at first, he’s likeable, and his reactions to Meas are believable. Though the plot is serious, and there are darker moments, there’s a thread of humour woven throughout (not laugh-out-loud, more like a satisfied snort every so often) that keeps you identifying with Joron. Meas is a force of nature, but her true character is hiding in the shadows around her forceful persona, and in the tidbits of her backstory we uncover – again, we see how playing particular roles can shape a person. Joron comes to model himself on Meas to a certain extent, and it’s good for both of them to see that. It’s not a friendship, exactly, but a partnership – a relationship of shifting balances worthy of Black Sails. That being said, the gullaime is probably my favourite character – it’s a cranky, blind, magical bird-creature who can call the wind to help sail the ship. Every bone ship should have one, but no other ship tries to make friends with theirs, which leads to some wonderful conversations and a really enjoyable, heart-tugging relationship between Joron and the Tide Child’s gullaime.
I could talk about this book for hours, but suffice to say it’s a new favourite of mine. It’s like Black Sails mashed up with Robin Hobb’s Liveships, via Pirates of the Caribbean, with a side of Temeraire and a dash of The Princess Bride. It sets up a huge, intricate world for the rest of the trilogy, and introduces us to complex politics and knife-balanced relationships while still being a rip-roaring adventure. It’s weirdly wholesome but also deviously dark. Somehow, it manages to feel like an old favourite from the first page, and there’s a scene towards the end that had more sheer joy than anything I’ve read for a long time. I highly, highly, highly recommend it. Five out of five cats!