Book Review: The Bone Ships by RJ Barker

Title: The Bone Ships

Author: RJ Barker

Publisher:  Orbit

Publication Date:  September 24, 2019

Genres: Grimdark Fantasy

Shelves: Female-fronted

Immediately fascinating with its unorthodox boarding of Joron Twiner and Lucky Meas, only to flounder for a while in seemingly directionless seas, The Bone Ships does find its sea-legs in the second half, sailing into a satisfying conclusion.

The first half of this book is, for the most part, character introductions and world-building. RJ Barker throws the reader right into the deepest seas of information and then douses us with words, terms, names, and details that often lack any clear meaning until context comes along later. It’s a fascinating word, both from a cultural and geological perspective, and the the approach to dragons is excitingly original, but there is a lot to take in. It’s an ugly world, dangerous and full of dirty people with dirty ideas, and the crew of the Tide Child are its unwanted, unloved, forgotten outcasts. It’s the kind of crew where a strange woman can walk in, claim a hat, yell at a few people, knock a few heads, and simply assume command because, with one exception, nobody else wants it.

The narrative here is a bit odd, reminiscent of a few grimdark sagas I’ve enjoyed, in that the hero, the protagonist, the main character is not the narrative point-of-view. Instead, it’s the deposed shipwife, Joron, who tells the tale, and its through his eyes that we witness the bold, brash, ballsy actions of Lucky Meas. He’s a decent character with some reasonable growth, who becomes less annoying as he becomes more familiar, but it was Lucky Meas who captained my imagination. She is so much fun to watch, a force of nature stronger than any sea-borne tempest, and as unrelenting as the storm-tossed waves. She’s a leader, through and through, and you can either accept it or get the hell out of her way.

The other characters who intrigued me here were the monstrous, once-feathered, gullaime windtalker, the only member of the crew to give Lucky Meas serious pause; and the courser, Aelerin, neither woman nor man, and regarded with superstitious dread, although their role in the story comes largely in the second half.

As for the story, what we have is a black ship of doomed souls in search of a legendary dragon – once commonplace enough to form the hulls of the bone ships, but hunted to near-extinction – hoping to redeem themselves with an act of heroic bravery. Of course, they are not the only ship in search of the legendary arakeesian, which makes for some suitably epic scenes of naval warfare between bone ships, especially since the Tide Child is the only ship looking to save the dragon. It’s exhilarating stuff, like the best scenes of a pirate tale, only with a little more magic and mayhem . . . and some terrifying beasts of the deep, just to keep everyone on their toes.

For my first literary voyage with RJ Barker, The Bone Ships was a great one, and I’ll definitely be booking berth on the next tale to set sail.

Rating: ♀ ♀ ♀ ♀

My sincere thanks to the publisher for sending me an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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