fantasy, review

Review: The Bone Ships by RJ Barker

A delightful coincidence lead me to pick up The Bone Ships. It was the first book I received in a bespoke book subscription I purchased and the blurb on the back of the book had me interested. Cut to a few months later, and I get approved for the second book in the trilogy on Netgalley. I decided to dive into this series and read the first two books close together.

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. 

The book opens on Joron, hiding away from his crew on land as he drinks himself into oblivion. He is woken by Lucky Meas, who challenges him for the command of his ship and wins. She immediately starts to whip the crew into shape and installs Joron as second in command. From here the plot starts to follow the crew of Tide Child as they are given a quest that should end the war against the Gaunt Islanders.

She had taken his hat of command from him, and though he had never wanted it before, it had suddenly come to mean something. Her theft had awoken something in him.

He intended to get it back.”

From the very first page, the world of The Bone Ships felt vibrant and fully realised. I was following along watching a film in my mind of every scene. I thought the worldbuilding was shown really well through the language the character used. Do you know the articles about the Inuit people having over 20 words for snow because they encounter it so much? I thought we got the same impression here with having multiple words for different creatures. I also enjoyed the small window we got into the gods and religions of the Hundred Isles. I wish we’d seen more of characters and their gods.

I do think it is important to mention that because of how unfamiliar the language used for world building was, it took me until the halfway mark before I felt like I was following conversations fully. I shamefully realised that what I thought was two different dragon species was just a proper name and slang name for the same species far too late. This was slightly helped by the glossary at the back of the book for the roles of the crew, but I would have appreciated a glossary with a wider scope. The language overall ended up being a bonus for me as once I was caught up it really added to my immersion and enjoyment but a glossary would have sped that process up.

Our two main characters, Meas and Joron where fantastic to read about. We experience the world in third person with a focus through Joron’s perspective. At the start of the book, Joron is an alcoholic Captain who has really given up on life. As captain of a black ship he (along with his crew) is considered already dead. Haunted by the memory of his father’s death Joron thinks he has nothing to live for and nothing to strive for. As we meet him right as his crew is taken from him and whipped into shape, we barely see him at his worst. He quits drinking, is forced to learn his crew’s names and interact with them. By the end of the book I was endeared to Joron and the relationships he built.

Meas is confident, all business and has absolutely no time to waste with a badly trained crew. With no hesitation she takes over a ship, kicks out the first mate and installs the ex-captain as her new first mate. She very quickly establishes that she is not somebody to question and will not go down easily. She is also somewhat of a legend in this world, so when she is fist introduced it felt like she had big boots to fill. She softens and becomes human over the course of the book as Joron get to know her and she is increasingly surrounded by people she can trust. I was so excited as her relationship with Joron grew stronger and they began to trust one another.

Meas stood by him, staring through her nearglass. “The island blocks my view of both its tower and the tower on the Spine,” she said, sounding as if the island had planned this just to spite her.

The background characters were not as strong, particularly due to their number. I found it difficult to keep track of our second tier characters. Some who had a much stronger affect on the narrative were very clear to me but the supporting crew blended into one another. I am looking forward to seeing them built up more in the next book now that a lot of character work as been done with our main characters.

The last third of the book absolutely changed the game. I was enjoying it but not fully compelled so when the plot jumped up in pace and intensity I couldn’t put the book down. There were multiple plot elements which emerged and revealed how they were connected, characters had developed strong relationships and the magic really started to kick in. There were multiple betrayals, emotional moments and points where I had to pause my reading to laugh.

I was worn out by the end of the book and dying to get to book two.

Overall, despite some confusion at the beginning this book was a great read full of plot and character development. I think the writing and language created and immersive experience. I gave The Bone Ships 4/5 stars and I fully expect that Call of the Bone Ships will smash it out of the water and receive a full 5 stars.

Have you read much sea faring fantasy? I definitely want to read more now. Let me know if you decide to pick up The Bone Ships.

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