The Bone Ships by R J Barker

September 26, 2019

Two nations at war. A prize beyond compare.

For generations, the Hundred Isles have built their ships from the bones of ancient dragons to fight an endless war.

The dragons disappeared, but the battles for supremacy persisted.

Now the first dragon in centuries has been spotted in far-off waters, and both sides see a chance to shift the balance of power in their favour. Because whoever catches it will win not only glory, but the war.

I’m a sucker for stories about pirates, I can’t help it. I still remember the first time I saw The Crimson Pirate with Burt Lancaster when I was a small child, I was immediately in awe. Novels about pirates are just as much fun. The only thing better than a novel about pirates is a fantasy novel about pirates. R J Barker’s latest, The Bone Ships, is the tale of a desperate crew setting course on a desperate mission.

Joron Twiner is down on his luck. Duelling with the wrong person’s son has resulted in exile to a black ship. Only the lowliest of criminals, the lowest of the low, are condemned to such a pitiful existence. Joron is the shipwife (captain) of The Tide Child. He spends his days wallowing in self-pity, drinking copious amounts of alcohol, and avoiding anything resembling hard work. Enter Lucky Meas, the most daring shipwife in all the Hundred Isles. Where Joron is slovenly and shambolic, Meas is the opposite. She is skilled in battle, keen of intellect and seeks opportunity wherever she can find it.

Quickly bested by Meas, Joron is given a simple choice – shape up or ship out. With Meas running the show The Tide Child has a new shipwife and a new sense of purpose. The good news for Joron is that Meas needs at least a semi-reliable second in command, and he is the best of a bad bunch. Leading from the front might not be what is best for Joron, but perhaps following a leader like Meas could be. From that point on there is a hint of The Dirty Dozen about proceedings. You know the sort of thing, a group of ruthless cutthroats tasked with the impossible and finding redemption, of a sort, along the way. It makes for a never jangling adventure that never falters.

At this point in a review I would normally take a bit of time to waffle about the other characters in a novel but in this instance, I’m not going to. It was so much fun discovering them myself I wouldn’t wish to deny you the pleasure. That said, Black Orris is brilliant.

There is a sense of chaotic glee when it comes to the action scenes. Battles are prefaced by a tense build up but when the violence is unleashed all hell breaks loose. Giant gallowbows are used to damage enemy vessels, while shark-like beasties lurk underwater ready to devour any unfortunates who end up overboard. I got the distinct impression that Lucky Meas only really feels truly alive in the heart of battle, when she is facing death head-on. It seems to be quite an intoxicating sensation, Joron finds himself drawn in by that same sense of careless mayhem. There is a freedom to be found when you are living one second to the next.

There is also the promise of being part of a real crew, the idea of being part of something bigger, of making a difference. Over the course of the novel, you feel the camaraderie grow between the men and women aboard ship. Meas’ greatest skill is her ability to inspire others. Though they are lowly criminals, the crew of The Tide Child each come to realise that they can all still mean something.

The world building in The Bone Ships is expertly done. I reckon it may be some of the best I’ve read and I don’t say that lightly. Everything from the traditions of the shipwives and the chain of command, to the socio-economic structure of the Hundred Isles has been considered. Established nautical terms have been tweaked ever so slightly to create something new and inventive. It’s tiny details like this that make all the difference. The components of Barker’s world are deftly woven into the narrative, nothing feels forced or shoe-horned in.

Not since The Crimson Permanent Insurance set sail has there been such an original concept when it comes to piratical shenanigans. The Bone Ships is a rip snortin’ tale of action and adventure on the high seas. Where else are you going to find huge vessels made of dragon bone and weird man-sized birds who can be used by shipwives to command the wind?

When I read The Wounded Kingdom trilogy, I often pondered that R J Barker’s mind must be a strange and wonderful place. The first book in The Tide Child series cements that thought, leaving me in little doubt. Now, I’m not saying I would wish to live there but it sure is fun to visit. I loved Barker’s first series of books, but The Bone Ships is next level stuff. It’s always a joy to witness writer hitting their stride. Barker has successfully made the jump from author to storyteller. On the face of it that may seem like a small distinction, but it is a hugely important one as far as I am concerned. An author writes but a storyteller imbues their words with an obvious passion. Barker falls squarely into the latter category.

The Bone Ships is published by Orbit and is available now. I’m going to break with tradition here, this isn’t just highly recommended it comes with The Eloquent Page’s highest of recommendations. I demand the sequel to be placed in my hands immediately, if not sooner.

Two musical recommendations to accompany The Bone Ships, both guaranteed to swash your buckle and buckle you swash or your money back. The soundtrack to Assassin’s Creed Black Flag* by Brian Tyler and/or Black Sails by Bear McCreary. Either will act as a perfect auditory balm the dovetails perfectly with R J Barker’s splendid words.

*The eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed that I have used this particular soundtrack as a recommendation before, but it is just so damned piratey I had to use it again. The full version of the soundtrack has a whole section dedicated just to bawdy sea shanties for goodness sake.

Phew, I managed to get through this entire review without a single ahoy, a shiver me timbers, or avast behind. Thank goodness.

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