The Bone Ships by RJ Barker
Publication date: 26 September 2019
Page count: 496 pages
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. This is a spoiler-free review.
Earlier this summer I read and loved Barker’s debut novel, Age of Assassins, so I was extremely excited to have the chance to read and review his latest book. Not only does The Bone Ships have a stunning cover (and you know I’m a sucker for a good cover), it takes place on huge ships made of sea dragon bones. Basically, this book is Justine catnip and dove into it with extremely high expectations.
The first in an epic adventure fantasy trilogy following a crew of condemned criminals on a suicide mission to hunt the first dragon seen in centuries.
Violent raids plague the divided isles of the Scattered Archipelago. Fleets constantly battle for dominance and glory, and no commander stands higher among them than “Lucky” Meas Gilbryn.
But betrayed and condemned to command a ship of criminals, Meas is forced on suicide mission to hunt the first living sea-dragon in generations. Everyone wants it, but Meas Gilbryn has her own ideas about the great beast. In the Scattered Archipelago, a dragon’s life, like all lives, is bound in blood, death and treachery.
I’m just going to start out this review by saying I absolutely loved this book. It was everything I could possibly want, and didn’t know I wanted, from a fantasy novel. Fun fact about me: I grew up near-ish to the ocean and used to sail regularly with my dad and my sister — I could sail before I could drive. I’ve always had a strong connection to the sea and this book was such a delight to sink into. The atmosphere Barker creates was just so fantastic — it sounds so cheesy to say but I could feel the wind on my face and the spray of the sea. This book pulled me into the happiest seafaring memories.
There was also something so perfect about The Bone Ships that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I pondered and pondered until I saw Hiu from The Fantasy Inn say that this book has ‘an undercurrent of optimism.A belief that people are mostly good,’ and that’s exactly it. The Bone Ships is a book set in a grim and brutal world, however it still feels uplifting and optimistic through character actions.
The world building in this book is just fantastic. One of my main worries going into The Bone Ships was that it would be a confusing and/or dense read, as many books set on ships are. You basically have to learn an entirely new vocabulary to figure out what’s going on (looking at you, Patrick O’Brian). However this wasn’t the case at all. The book is filled with nautical terms, but twisted to suit this world and in a way that’s easy for the reader to pick up on. A ship’s captain is a shipwife, the bow is the beak and the stern is the rump, the sails are wings, and so on. Something else I picked up on was the place of gender in this world — ships are referred to with male pronouns rather than female ones, a shipwife is the captain’s title regardless of gender, and even the phrase ‘men and women’ is ‘women and men’. I found this incredibly effective not only for making sense of the world and the gender politics that are at play,
In terms of plot, The Bone Ships feels like the opposite of Age of Assassins — where Age of Assassins has a strong and pacey plot and lighter world building, The Bone Ships is lighter on plot, more closely examines the world and the characters, and is definitely a book to be savoured. If you’re a reader who prefers a plot-driven book then this might not be the one for you. However, readers who love character-driven books will delight in the deep insight into characters and their story arcs. I think this may be a dividing point among readers and wanted to point it out.
Much of my love for this book also comes from Joron, our former shipwife of Tide Child who has his command taken by the famed Lucky Maes. Watching his story arc unfold was one of the most rewarding reading experiences I’ve had in ages. He is a deeply flawed character recovering from trauma — he’s far from perfect, but that’s why I absolutely adored him. He’s a completely different person at the beginning of the book than he is at the end, which is always a favourite trope of mine. Much of the book’s optimistic undercurrent comes from Joron and his characterisation. I am also officially obsessed with Maes. She’s the seafaring badass leader of my dreams! I always love strong women, particularly older women, in fantasy. I’m always on the lookout for these characters in books and I feel I can really rely on Barker to deliver on this.
The Bone Ships is an astonishing start to a new fantasy trilogy, and I cannot tell you how much I loved this book — it is undoubtedly one of my favourites of the year. Barker is an incredibly talented writer who fills his stories with so much heart and a great sense adventure. If you’re looking for a unique fantasy world filled with fantastic characters, I urge you to pick up The Bone Ships. I cannot wait to read the next one!
CW: Deformity, PTSD
Bonus: If you’d like to hear more about The Bone Ships, my sister and I interviewed him for our podcast You’re Never Going to Read This! It is absolutely delightful and worth a listen.
Want to pick up a copy of The Bone Ships for yourself? You can find it at the following sites (affiliate links):