THE BONE SHIPS / AUTHOR: RJ BARKER / PUBLISHER: ORBIT / RELEASE DATE: 26TH SEPTEMBER
RJ Barker has a talent for creating utterly compelling fantasy worlds. His previous fantasy series, The Wounded Kingdom, was packed with fine details, all of which felt natural and added to the fun. His latest work, The Bone Ships, pulls the same trick. Subtle details that create a world familiar enough to be engaging and yet stacking up creating an immersive experience.
The Bone Ships is set in a world that is mostly ocean. The people of The Hundred Isles war against their rivals in the Gaunt Islands. Fertile land is scarce and glory goes to those who brave the sea. The greatest ships are made from the bones of long-dead sea dragons, and these mighty bone ships form a powerful fleet.
The story centres around Joron Twiner, an unfortunate man who finds himself as crew aboard a black ship called The Tide Child. These are bone ships that have no glory, being essentially prison-crewed ships destined to do the most dangerous jobs. Fate changes when the legendary Lucky Meas Gilbryn boards the ship, turning its sorry crew into something she can use. Meas intends to lead this ragged crew on a mission that could change to course of history and onto glory. Or end in a very bloody, messy way.
It’s a story set in a harsh world. The people of The Bone Ships live in a place where death is common and most babies are born deformed. Status is dependent mostly on how many healthy people you can bring to the world, which means the story is crammed with women in places of power. In a genre populated with young male heroes and wise old bearded gentlemen, it’s good to see something that’s honestly different and it just makes the whole story more engaging and relatable.
Though the main characters, Joron and Meas, are always interesting, the rest of the cast (even minor characters) are memorable and fun. Particularly Black Orris, who is forever quotable. Barker populates his tale with all sorts of different people with their own story, and this makes the world breathe. It’s a horrible world, but an all too believable one. It’s easy to empathise with the crew of the Tide Child – even the worst of them have some way of getting to you.
The language is deftly done. Little notes such as all ships being he rather than she, or crew being called “deckchilders.” It’s a strange world close enough to our own and, although this a trick common to fantasy, Barker’s lyrical style sells the strangeness. The story itself is a rip-roaring oceanic adventure, packed with violence and beauty. It’s about the beauty of the sea and the brutality of humanity, as well as huge sea monsters and ship-to-ship battles. A perfect storm of fantasy storytelling.