In an era where almost every new fantasy book is about a band of Dungeons and Dragons style adventurers bounding around a fully-built and populated world, along comes RJ Barker to completely buck this welcome trend and write a fantasy book that is also a high seas adventure in the vein of Patrick O’Brian and Dudley Pope but also about dragons and inexplicably post-apocalyptic in the most intriguing ways. It has a talking parrot, criminals abound, and also features some of the best naval warfare scenes that I’ve ever read in a book. The truth is, this review of Bone Ships is hard to write because I loved the book so damn much that all I really want to do is squeal like a middle-schooler and talk about how cool Gilbryn “Lucky” Meas is. But, let’s do our job and review the thing.
Setting: Bone Ships takes place on the high seas in a world where hardwood is seemingly non-existent. Instead, ships are built upon the bones of slain dragons, a species that was once abundant but is no longer. This makes ships incredibly valuable things, even beyond their value as modes of transportation in a land that is made up mostly of islands ranging in size and breadth. When I said that Bone Ships was inexplicably post-apocalyptic, I am making an educated guess as to the history only hinted at within the novel. Barker writes about a human population that is cursed with poor progeny. Most children are born with some sort of deformity, and it is the ones born whole that are considered blessed and allowed to rule. Barker’s world is one of castes, a society where, if one is born without a foot, they are automatically pushed into the ironic profession of cobbler. If born without a hand, why, to the tailors with you! There is a might meets right specter hanging over all of the Hundred Isles, the main societal focus of Bone Ships, that is tragic even as it is practical.
The Hundred Isles are ever at war with a different set of landmarks collectively known as the Gaunt Isles, and each society has entire mythos built around the evil atrocities committed by the other. The bone ships are the heart of this war, where nearly all conflict is fought upon the all-encompassing waters that surround everything. And Barker’s sea isn’t friendly, teeming with vicious creatures that could only come about through horrid imagination or perhaps some type of over-polluting of the natural waters. I read these nods to climate change and pollution as subtle suggestions towards what our current civilization is doing to the Earth, and fantasy is nothing if not a mirror to society.
Plot: Amidst this background comes Lucky Meas, one of the most famous bone ship captains in the world. Stripped of her naval command for reasons unknown, Meas finds Joron Twiner, the hapless captain of a black ship. Black ships and their denizens are those condemned to man the seas and atone for their crimes. Unlike the much greater, both in purpose and size, white ships of the Hundred Isles navy, the black ships are shunned and looked down upon, even as they serve a vital role in roaming the waters. Lucky Meas whips Twiner in duel and takes command of the Tide Child, and in doing so initiates a change in every and woman aboard.
Barker weaves in the myriad mysteries of each character throughout the novel, revealing enough to keep us wondering, while never really giving us all the answers. Before long, Meas is tasked by an old acquaintance high up in Hundred Isles society with hunting down and protecting a dragon. Yes, a dragon has been sighted, which hasn’t happened for a long time, and there is only one thing that any nation or power will want with a dragon – its very bones. This sparks a hunt across the seas that is heart-racing and action-packed, but that tempers itself with moments of slower-paced character interactions that are as important to the story as its main focus. Barker manages to pack a variety of settings and scenarios into what would at first glance seem to be a rote and uninteresting landscape. There are sieges and spelunkings and strange, otherworldy artifacts whose nature can only really be guessed at. Behind all of this is the mythology of a great bird god whose purpose is hinted and who, if my own conjectures are near to mark, has to do with whatever apocalypse inflicted this made-up world. It is a dark world that RJ Barker has crafted, but one ripe with curiosity and a true sense of discovery that is near-required for a naval adventure tale.
Character: Part of what makes the Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin series so powerful, aside from its huge world-scoping adventure, is the relationship between its two main characters. It does not matter how good a ship battle is nor how majestic one’s dragons are if the characters that we must read about from page to page are not likable and relatable in some way. As with nearly everything in Bone Ships, Barker nails down his characters and their relationships in ways that continue to mature throughout the book. Meas and Twiner have a fascinating dynamic, with Twiner hating Meas for stealing his ship, but slowly growing to respect her and the effect that she has on the rabble of his crew – a respect he never had. There is a bit of The Great Gatsby to the way in which Barker tells the story, with Lucky Meas as the protagonist of the book seen through the eyes of Joron Twiner, yet unlike Nick Carraway, Twiner’s growth throughout is as important as his dynamic with Meas. Along for the ride are as rag tag a group of misfits as any sea captain could wish, a true pirate’s den of vagabonds, the aforementioned talking parrot, and a bird-like creature that serves as a wind-mage for the ship and who becomes surprisingly important to both the novel’s themes and the growth of Joron Twiner.
Even beyond the arcs of each character, there is a group-growth that happens on the Tide Child, one spurred by the presence of Lucky Meas, and even when characters whose names we never learn are blasted apart by shipfire and tossed overboard, we can feel the impact it has on a crew that becomes tighter and tighter as the weave of the tale is cinched. I’ll admit, most of the names and faces in Bone Ships, outside of its two main characters, are fairly forgettable and could even be called caricature-esque, but the book is no less for this and in some ways requires it for the development of Meas and Twiner.
Parting Words: In my notes, after reading the first chapter, I wrote “this is the best first chapter I have read in a long time.” I had fairly high expectations going into Bone Ships because, despite it not being published yet, it has been getting buzz. Well I am here to add to that buzz because it is an excellent book and one of the best I’ve read all year. The attention is well-deserved. There are moments in Bone Ships that left my skin tingling, one in particular that I don’t think I will ever forget, and that is something that one so rarely gets with a novel or any form of entertainment media. I may be particularly susceptible to a fantasy naval adventure, I love the Liveship Traders series from Robin Hobb after all, and had my time with some of the more classic high seas adventures. However, I think anyone can love this book. The terminology is fairly unique – Barker makes up his own terms for the apparatus used on his ship because there really is no equivalent in our vernacular for some of the parts of a dragon that can be shaped into weapons and ship parts, and the writing is so good that it’s simply a pleasure to read. Barker had fun writing this book, and it shows and is so good for that reason.
I apologize for not having more negative things to say. I often do, and I’m not shy about saying what I think is wrong with a book (this is Fantasy Book Critic after all), and Bone Ships is not perfect. But it is exactly what it should be, and in that lies a sort of perfection that more fantasy novels, and books in general, should strive to match.