The Bone Ships


R. J. Barker


Science Fiction / Fantasy


Date Reviewed:

November 3, 2020

he Bone Ships is a marvelous example of fantasy world-building. R. J. Barker has imagined a watery world with only a scattering of small islands poking up above a vast and dangerous ocean. Two nations populate these islands - the Hundred Isles and the Gaunt Isles, and the two have ruthlessly warred with each other for generations. Ships raid each others islands, enslaving, looting and burning. The population of the Hundred Isles is incensed by the crimes of the Gaunt Isles ships, but from what R. J. Barker shows of the Hundred Isles, they are an equally cruel and awful culture. For example, the Hundred Isles will take first born children, and via an undescribed magical process, sacrifice these infants, turning them into corpses lights, which eerily adorn the bone ships.

This watery world was once populated by immense creatures called arakeesian (also called a keyshan, I didn't understand why there were two alternate names for the same creatures), which are far larger than whales. These huge beasts once populated the ocean, but hunting by the two nations has wiped them out. The humans used the bones of the keyshan to build their ships. The strong, light bones form the hulls, the masts, and the decks. The largest ships are five-ribbers, meaning their hulls are built from five rib bones. These gleaming white ships are the pride of the fleet, they carry giant bows and scores of marines. The Tide Child is a four-rib black ship - it is a death ship. Criminals, political outcasts, and the dregs of the fleet are assigned to the death ships, and once part of the ship, they are expected to die with it.

Joron Twiner is the captain of the Tide Child (in the Hundred Isles navy, the captain is called the shipwife, and the ships are referred to with a masculine pronounce). Twiner was once a fisherman, but his father was killed in accident with a fleet ship. In anger, Joron challenged the captain of that fleet ship to a duel. Joron fully expects to lose, but unexpectantly wins. But the slain captain was from a powerful family, and although Joron was justified, he was banished to the black ship.

Striding up the beach, where Joron is morosely drinking, comes "Lucky" Meas Gilbryn. She demands that Joron hand over captaincy of the Tide Child to her. When Joron refuses, she fights him and takes the hat anyway, but without slaying Joron - him, she keeps as her new second in command on the Tide Child. Meas boards the ship and assesses her new crew, surveying the condition of the ship. Soon enough, mostly through sheer force of her will, Meas takes over the crew and demands that they act as "fleet", that they obey her rules and instructions. Their first mission is to intercept a raiding party of Gaunt Isle ships - can such a ragtag crew successfully fight such a battle? Soon enough Tide Child is knifing through the waves.

I loved the world building the best in this book, though the picture R. J. Barker paints is a grim one. It seems like most of the population is afficted with weird diseases, so that their offspring are born malformed. Giving birth to a healthy child is a sure way to achieve status and wealth. The oceans teem with dangerous fish - fall in the water, and the razor sharp teeth of the fish will strip your flesh from your bones. The bone ships sail on the wind, but also posses magical bird-like creatures called guillame that can summon the winds. The guillame are all blinded at birth. The culture of the Hundred Isles is built upon a cruel and ruthless society, I began to suspect that, despite the beliefs of Joron Twiner and his shipmates, that the denizens of the Gaunt Isles might actually be the more civilized nation.

The characters are also well drawn. The two main characters in the novel are of course Meas and Joron, but R. J. Barker draws convincing portraits of the other crew members as well. Naturally, being a band of condemned sailors and doomed prisoners, there are not many pleasant folks among this rough and dangerous lot.

The plot is full of adventure. There are ship to ship battles, with the mighty bows launching huge stone bolts, or deadly fire upon the enemy ships, followed by boarding parties and desperate hand to hand combat. There is exploration over vast seas. Tense confrontations with untrustworthy men and ambitious women. Danger at every turn. Betrayal. Magic. And the rumor of the greatest prize on the world, which Meas intends to sail the Tide Child and investigate the truth.

My first complaint with The Bone Ships is that the map at the beginning of the book is almost completely useless - almost none of the islands or towns mentioned in the story appear on the map. If I had to draw the route of the Tide Child on the provided map, I could not, due to the absence of landmarks. My other complaint is that the second book, Call of the Bone Ships, is not yet available. The cover of The Bones Ships calls it book 1 in the Tide Child trilogy, so a third book expected. Hurrah!