Book Review: The Bone Ships by R. J. Barker

Book Review: The Bone Ships by R. J. Barker

Title: The Bone Ships

Author: RJ Baker

Publisher: Orbit Books

Publication date: September 24, 2019

Genre: Fantasy

Summary: For generations, the Hundred Isles and the Gaunt Islands have been at war, frequently raiding each other’s islands and stealing children. Both sides depend on ships crafted from the bones of the long dead sea dragons, but, as they have been hunted to extinction, the resources for crafting new ships have been dwindling. Inexplicably, a single sea dragon has been spotted. Lucky Meas Gilbryn sees this as an opportunity to end the war, but her second in command, Joron Twiner, fears it might be treason. Still, the crew of Tide Child find themselves sailing towards the sea dragon, and certain death.

This is the first book in The Tide Child Trilogy and I can’t wait to read the rest of the series. This is an amazing fantasy with a well-imagined world and wonderful characters that feel real and add color to the story. I enjoy fantasies that involve a journey, but I think this is the first I’ve ever read where most of the story takes place on water. As someone who gets sea sick and can’t even enjoy a cruise ship, I loved that I could enjoy a sea adventure without throwing up.

I loved the world building. So much of the story takes place on a single ship, the black ship Tide Child, where the crew have been condemned to death for one crime or another. It was its own microcosm, had its own culture that was both a part of and different from the larger world’s culture. It was almost like it was a floating nation. It made sense and worked well in the greater scheme of things. I’m not sure if I’d want to live in this world, but it was vividly imagined with a rich history and mythology that ran through the story flawlessly. There were no sun or moon, but Skearith’s Eye and Skearith’s Blind Eye instead. I can’t tell you how many mornings I woke up and thought of the sun as Skearith’s Eye instead of the sun.

But as much as I loved the world and the culture, it’s also the things I had a problem with. This book comes with a map. I love books with maps and will often study them to memorization. I noticed that the world seemed to be comprised of two nations: the Hundred Isles and the Gaunt Islands. I don’t know how plausible it is for a world to be wholly comprised of islands, but it worked for the story. But, throughout the story, the narrator, Joron, couldn’t help but see how similar the two nations were, which made me think the whole world was really very homogeneous with little variation in culture. I also noticed that the cold was emphasized the further north the ship traveled, but the main island in the Hundred Isles lies along the same general latitudes, so I expected to read that some of the crew might not have been as afflicted as they were used to a colder climate, but that wasn’t mentioned.

The characters were exceptionally well-done. They felt like real people with histories, secrets, and motivations. They had individual personalities that played off of each other and contributed to the larger personality of the crew. Despite their varied backgrounds, they managed to mesh and work well together, coming together to work towards the same cause. I loved the complexity of Meas’s character. She seemed to be both lucky and cursed, but was absolutely brilliant as a leader and tactician. She’s an amazing character, one I wouldn’t mind calling my leader. My favorite character was the gullaime, a creature that can control the winds and is feared by the crew it’s forced to serve. Tide Child‘s was no exception, but I loved how it became more than just a creature. It had its own personality and I loved getting to know it just as Joron did.

My other complaint is that Joron’s character bothered me. I was a little disappointed in him as the story is told from his perspective. He felt a little hard to pin down for most of the story. Fearful, yet brave. Dutiful, yet vengeful. He had an interesting history that kept popping up, which explained his fears really well, but the fact that he was able to put that aside and take up his duties so well kind of astounded me. Since the story’s told from his viewpoint, I hoped for a little about how he was able to do it and what was going through his mind. There is some of that, but not enough to convince me of all the growth he made. Perhaps it’s just me, but I almost felt like he was a victim of the story, like his growth served the story more than it served him.

The Bone Ships tells a fascinating story. It’s not just about three ships, one from the Hundred Isles and two from the Gaunt Islands, seeking to end the war, but also about the formation of a group. It’s a beautiful story of mismatched souls coming together to form a cohesive whole where each person can depend on the others and work like a well-oiled machine. It’s a lovely read and surprisingly heartwarming.

Overall, this is a great adventure book hinting at underlying politics, but mainly focusing on the formation of a trustworthy crew trying to do the right thing for the people of the world. This was great book with an interesting setting, fascinating characters that change over time, and an intriguing story that had me wondering what the crew was going to do at the end.

How many cups of tea will you need?

An excellent 4 cups

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Thank you to NetGalley and Orbit for a free e-copy. All opinions expressed are my own.

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