Call of the Bone Ships


R. J. Barker


Science Fiction / Fantasy


Date Reviewed:

May 29, 2021

ne of the delights of reading fantasy and science fiction is discovering an author who has imagined a full realized world, and populated it with terrors and wonders, so that it is marvelous place to tell a story. Off of the top of my head, I can think of The Divine Cities trilogy by Robert Jackson Bennett, the four volumes in The Books of Babel series by Josiah Bancroft, The Risen Kingdoms trilogy by Curtis Craddock, The Nine Realms by Sarah Kozloff, and the four books in Alison Croggon's The Chronicles of Pellinor. To this list must be added the impressive Bone Ships trilogy by R.J. Barker. Barker has created a grim, terrifying world where the characters suffer and perish with regularity, often meeting their fate in violent confrontations with men or beasts.

Call of the Bone Ships continues the tale of Deckkeeper (second in command on the Tide Child) Joron Twiner, and Shipwife (captain of the Tide Child) Lucky Meas who sail aboard the black death ship. The opening paragraph finds the ship battling a fierce northern storm, only to discover a brownship stranded upon the rocks, soon to be smashed to splinters by the storm, with all of its crew dragged beneath the waves in the Hag's cold embrace (Barker does a nice job of inserting sheen of religion to his world, the characters all worship and fear a triumvirate of supernatural gods called the Hag, the Mother and the Maiden). The crew of the Tide Child launches a desperate rescue mission to save the stranded ship, The Widow's Bounty. When the ship is saved and the storm abates, Lucky Meas and Joron Twiner clamber aboard the The Widow's Bounty and making a stunning horrific discovery. This sets into motion a long adventure, where Lucky Meas leads her crew against incredible odds and dangerous foes. There is treachery, ambushes, and plot twists a-plenty. Joron Twiner goes from one dangerous confrontation to the next, and he suffers mightily for it.

The ocean world that the Tide Child sails is sprinkled with scattered, rocky islands, there are no continents or large land masses. Humans cling to existence on this islands, where the native vegetation rots at the end of each summer season, only to grow back anew the following year. It is a desperate existence, the people's primary livelihood is derived from the sea. But the waters are full of dangerous creatures, fall into the water and soon your flesh will be shredded from the bone, before you even have a chance to drown.

The great sea dragons, called arakeesians, have returned, and the two warring empires - the Hundred Islands and the Gaunt Islands, are determined to hunt these great beasts, because their huge bones are used to construct the warships needed for military adventures. The weird, rotting vegetation on this watery world does not have trees to produce lumber for wooden ships. Lucky Meas wants peace, her goal is to end the eternal strife between the two island empires. If the giant sea monsters are left alive, then no new navies can be built, and maybe the perpetual cycle of raiding and enslaving and slaughter will cease. But there are powerful figures who believe that if their side can be the first to resume the killing of the sea dragons, then they will be ultimately victorious in their conquest. These figures will sanction any deed, no matter how horrific, in their drive for power and conquest. This pits the crew of the Tide Child against vast and ruthless forces. The story's plot is full of attacks and escapes and stratagems, the pace of the storytelling never flags. Joron and Lucky Meas are always facing a new peril.

I enjoyed a lot of R. J. Barker's novel. More of the watery world is revealed than in the first book. The reader learns more about the mysterious guilliame; stork-like creatures who have the power to control the wind. There are insights in the unexplored past of Lucky Meas - why is the best shipwife in the fleet banished to a death ship? Because this is only the second book in the trilogy, not all the mysteries are resolved - new, astonishing details about the arakeesians are revealed, but clearly Barker has more surprises in store. I can't wait for book 3!