R.J. Barker, The Bone Ships (2019)

The Bone Ships

Author: R.J. Barker

Title: The Bone Ships

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 512

Series: The Tide Child #1

This is a book I’ve been alluding to in our posts for a while now – not surprisingly, since I read it in early December last year 😉 But I find I have a long period of book digestion – let’s call it rumination, and imagine the slow process of cellulose being turned into energy in the many stomachs of certain animals… 😀

I knew from the beginning how I would start this particular review, however. Here goes! 😉

Some authors are known for writing one book for their whole lives. The characters’ names change, the setting differs, the plot varies every time, but one crucial thing stays always the same – be it a topic especially close to the author’s heart, a crucial relationship, explored time and again it its various incarnations, or certain character traits, a mythical connection, or even a worldview, appearing unannounced here and there in every book. R.J. Barker seems to fit this category admirably – building complex, nuanced worlds and populating them with believable characters, who nevertheless remain familiar to the readers of his previous books.

The Bone Ships’ central relationship is a complicated one, developing in unexpected directions, and ultimately maturing into something intriguing and real over the course of the book. Starting as one of rivalry, albeit very short-lived, it changes into one of master-apprenticeship, to end firmly in the territory of chosen parent-childhood mixed with a solid dose of willingly accepted authority – on both sides. Sounds convoluted? Well, how about this: if you’ve read The Wounded Kingdom trilogy, you’re bound to find striking similarities between the relationship of the assassins Girton Clubfoot and Merela, and the one between the characters of The Bone Ships, Joron Twiner and Lucky Meas. Luckily for us, however, this is a type of relationship whole sagas can be written about, and yet there will always remain something new to be discovered.

I wasn’t overly taken with The Wounded Kingdom – so little, in fact, that I didn’t finish the whole affair, stopping after the second installment without any regrets, and even less willingness to read the finale. But let me tell you, I am very glad I have picked up The Bone Ships after reading a few very convincing reviews of my fellow bloggers. Barker’s prose gets tighter, more streamlined and more captivating, his worldbuilding is both compelling and fresh (which is a welcome change from The Wounded Kingdom, which for me remained derivative throughout the two books I’ve read), and his characters are both more original and realistic in their motivations, development, and relationships they form with each other and the world around them.

And of course, it’s all about tall ships! Sails unfurling in the salty wind of high seas! Piracy and spycraft, mythical sea dragons (or arakeesians, to be precise), windspires and gullaimes the wind talkers, naval and land battles, duels and abordages, loyalty and treason, vengeance, despair and triumph.

ship-in-a-storm-1887 Aivazovsky
Ivan Aivazovsky, Ship in a Storm (1887)

I’m always drawn to stories like these; admittedly, with varied results, as sometimes the naval environment seems just like a refreshing change of scenery, a simple exchange of woods to water (Naomi Novik and Marie Brennan come to mind as an example of that, unfortunately!) In truth, however, the sea requires much more attention from the writers than land as a chosen environment – for most of us are bound to land and we treat it as something obvious and known, whereas sea… Well, sea is different. Ever-changing, ever-dangerous, a constant concern for those who brave its waters, its unpredictability wonderful and lethal at the same time. Barker deals with this new water-bound world comfortably enough, creating a believable setting which ultimately becomes one of the crucial players in his overarching story. In many aspects of The Bone Ships storytelling I was reminded of Hobb’s Liveship Traders Trilogy, of O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, and of the old pirate movies I so enjoyed as a child – and all of these are worthy inspirations, at least in my eyes ;).

the-convict-ship-t-k-hervey-1864 Hamilton
James Hamilton, The Convict Ship T.K. Hervey (1864)

The worldbuilding in The Bone Ships is highly intriguing and I’d love to learn more, especially about the social side of things, even as I’m not entirely convinced by what I encountered. The gender-related changes to the social structure are a highly interesting concept, but I don’t feel they are rooted deeply enough either in the culture or the environment of the world described in The Bone Ships – I rather feel like Barker just scratched the surface here. In other words, I don’t think of them in this particular setting as an integral part of the world and I do hope this will be rectified in the subsequent books. Either way, the gender flipping serves as an opening to a very contemporary discussion, and even as I agree that it’s an incredibly timely and important one, I don’t feel The Bone Ships’ world is the right setting for it, with so many similarities to our world’s insular societies such major societal changes would require much more grounding to become believable. But it’s a small quibble, coming from a sociologist, and one that only slightly affected my pleasure of reading. Another one, which is Piotrek’s favorite pet peeve, is the dominance of the author’s very contemporary worldview in general, and with regards to the environment in particular – again, as much as I agree with the author’s views in the matter, I find it difficult to suspend my disbelief that uneducated and desperate members of a poor insular nation are so easily able to ditch centuries of prejudice, economic dependency and religious beliefs in order to fight for environmental diversity, however magnificent the species in question is.

Apart from these two quibbles, however, The Bone Ships is a reading delight. The main strength of the novel is undoubtedly the wealth of believable and meaningful relationships, developing slowly throughout the story and allowing all sides to grow naturally – not only between Joron and Lucky Meas, or between Joron and Farys, but also, maybe especially, between Joron and the Tide Child’s resident gullaime, an enslaved birdlike creature capable of calling down wind to a ship. I am an avowed fan of the gullaime, and I’m really looking forward to read more about it/him (that may be the single most important reason for reading the second installment for me :D). It speaks to the strength of Barker’s writing that he could create such a believable and relatable, yet in many aspects such a wonderfully alien character. Having said that, however, I should emphasize that The Bone Ships is also an incredibly entertaining romp through the seas and islands of the Hundred Isles, with plenty of action, swashbuckling and bad odds all around :D.

All in all, The Bone Ships turned out to be a very pleasurable reading experience, a commendable exercise in imagination and enviable worldbuilding skills, but most importantly – a wonderful portrait of human ability to grow within the complex, subtle net of relationship with others and the world around.

Score: 9/10

47 thoughts on “R.J. Barker, The Bone Ships (2019)

  1. I am really glad you enjoyed this so much. I had to laugh at your “quibbles” because they’re deal breakers for me 🙂

    I do have to ask, how do you write a review so long after the fact? I’m lost just a couple of weeks after, much less a couple of months. Are notes involved and if so, pen and paper or digital?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I kind of expected it from you 😁 – and usually it would have been a much bigger issue for me as well, but here it’s actually only a side topic for an adventurous, imaginative novel.

      Plus, I judge things like this according to the author’s intentions, or at least how I perceive them: if I see they meant well, and it’s their attempt to consider such topics in earnest, I’m fine with it. Sometimes, though I have a feeling it’s just out of spite, or to conform to a trend and by joining the bandwagon grab some more attention and money. And yes, I have certain author’s in mind 😉

      Oh man, at the risk of sounding weird, no notes at all 😉 I just remember most of it, and if a name slips my mind, I can find it easily online, or in a physical or digital copy of the book. I only ever write notes on non-fiction that interests me, and even then it’s usually just quotes.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Great points, especially from the sociology standpoint (my background being anthropology, I agreed with many of them!) World building definitely needs some hammering out, and some filling in, which I hope the next book will bring. I still preferred his Wounded Kingdom trilogy because I felt the characters there were much stronger, and because I think the first-person narration helped. This book too had its sloggier moments but the series as a whole has potential and I look forward to the second book which hopefully will throw us straight into the action.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks! 😊
      And great to see a fellow social scientist around! 😁

      I remember reading your reviews of The Wounded Kingdom books and actually your review of The Bone Ships was among the ones that convinced me to give this book a chance – so thanks! 🙂

      Yes, there were some slow moments, especially the naval training just slogged on and on, but somehow this time around I was more inclined to forgiveness – the setting felt much fresher for me, and more enticing, than in The Wounded Kingdom, which seemed very derivative (especially since I’m an avid reader of Hobb’s Realm of Elderlings) 😉


  3. Wow, what a fantastic review! This sounds like something I’d enjoy (ships, pirates, sea dragons … yes please!) even taking your quibbles into account.
    I really loved reading this post!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you! 😊
      I’m sure you’d enjoy this one a lot! It starts slowly, even sluggishly at times, but picks up the pace admirably afterwards, and becomes a great adventure on high seas 😁 and it has cool illustrations at the beginning of each chapter, and the chapter titles are themed 🤩

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Unlike what happened with Girton in The Wounded Kingdom, it took me some time to get attached to Joron, and he had to walk a good way along his personal journey before I could see him as a character to care for. The main difference between this new series (although it’s only at its first book for now) and the previous one is that here we can enjoy a more… choral experience (for want of a better word), given that the focus is on a whole ship crew with all its different personalities, rather than a small group of people interacting with each other. Still the worldbuilding is a fascinating one, and I look forward to learning more about it.
    And… well, Team Gullaime all the the way!!!! 😍😍

    Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, Joron proved difficult to like in the beginning, so obstinate and sorry for himself. And yes, I like here the fact that there are more characters here that we see not only through the main protagonist’s perspective but in their own right. I think the omniscient narrator perspective serves this book better than first person narrative – but it’s definitely a personal preference 🙂
      Team Gullaime all the way indeed! 😁

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, they’re really nice and moody – there is something special about good maritime-themed paintings, I always feel somehow transported into the scene. Turner’s one of my favorite painters, his style just suits perfectly to the sea – but his paintings are best seen live, because reproductions just don’t do them justice.
      I think you’d enjoy this one, even despite the peeves 😉

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Great post! I’m glad you enjoyed it so much, I know I did! This was easily one of my favourite books of 2019 – and yes, the relationship between Maes and Joron is absolutely brilliant. I don’t know about you, but I genuinely think I got goosebumps when the arkeesian first appeared on screen! I think that went some way to suspending my disbelief about the crews working together, but I totally get your point on reflection.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks! 😀

      I was quite surprised that this book was so much a fun to read, as my expectations after the Wounded Kingdom books were rather lowered. The arkeesian’s first appearance is awesome, and I really liked the fact that Barker wrote this scene to emphasise the feeling of completeness the characters felt upon seeing it in the water – something truly amazing, and yet natural. But still, considering the vessels that are the key to political power and dominance in the known world are built of arakeesians’ bones and it has become an incredibly rare and precious resource… well, Barker has still two books to convince me 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Fingers crossed he manages it! I haven’t read The Wounded Kingdom books, but I do want to. I’m currently in the middle of so many fantasy series that I have banned myself from starting any new ones for a few months at least though!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. LOL, I know what you mean! So many series, so little time, and at some point they just seem to blend together 😉

          I must admit I have abandoned a few series which stopped being fun, but it usually comes as a difficult decision once you put so much time into reading the previous books – not to mention getting attached to the characters!


  6. I feel like this has been on my TBR forever even though it only came out last year. 😛 But YAY, glad you loved it!! I also didn’t finish the Wounded Kingdom series–too little time and too many good series to finish–but I’ve been hearing good things about this one from people who didn’t like the Girton story, so I have hopes!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, there was a lot of publicity and blogging frenzy around this one 😉 It’s worth a try, definitely! I think you’d enjoy it, so I’ll be looking forward to reading your review! 😀


  7. I really enjoyed this and am glad you did, too.

    Much like yourself I was entirely u interested with Wounded Kingdom and also stopped after book two. But then loved this. So it seems, at least with Barker if not Kristoff, our tastes align.

    I love anything to do with tall ships and am always trying to find something to rival the Liveship Traders. This isn’t in the same echelon, but then I doubt very much ever will be (at least for me).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, I believe our tastes align with regards to most authors and books – just not Kristoff 😜

      I remember we talked about The Wounded Kingdom and agreed that it was a heartfelt tribute to Hobb’s Realm of Elderlings (because imitation is the highest form of compliment) 😉

      Here the vibes of inspiration are much weaker – though undoubtedly present – and I feel this book is more wholly Barker’s, which to me makes it also more original and fun.

      And indeed, as much as I will always prefer Fitz and Fool to Liveship Traders, I enjoyed Hobb’s tale on the high seas and the maritime setting in Traders was perfectly believable, battles and losses realistic, and the sea appropriately uncaring 😉

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Rain Wilds for me is the most YA series Hobb wrote 😉 I enjoyed it, but to be fair I didn’t care much about most of the characters – they had some growing to do before I actually started to like some of them, around book three 😉 But Fitz and Fool – all three trilogies are among my favourite series ever 😀


            1. I didn’t want to spoil it for you – it was just my impression 😉
              Yeah, I know you haven’t finished it, haven’t seen a review ;). I guess I will know soon enough when you’re done – we can discuss it then! 😀

              Liked by 1 person

        1. 🤣🤣🤣 I still think you’d love Sapkowski if you read the original… But Polish is a devilishly difficult language to learn, so I don’t see Sapkowski as a good enough motivation for you to learn it 😉

          Liked by 1 person

            1. Apparently Polish is one of the most difficult languages in the world 😉 Spanish is easy for all, it seems, and I’d like to learn it at some point. As for Japanese I only learnt to count to ten, because this was what I heard all the time during karate training 😉

              Liked by 1 person

                1. Yeah, Japanese sounds very unique, especially with all the tonal differences. Though I do have a feeling when I listen to it that the speaker is more often than not raging 😂
                  Spanish sounds very laid back, on the other hand 😉
                  I do wonder sometimes what Polish sounds like to others who don’t speak/understand it. Complicated, that’s for sure 😉

                  Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Lashaan! 😊
      I think it all books down to laziness in my case 😉 Because I don’t take notes, and I take a long time to write a review, I tend to have more time just to think about a book, consider what it was that I loved or hated about it and why, and then write it all down. Here’s to elaborate excuses of one’s tardiness! 😂
      I’m very happy you enjoy my reviews, though 😀
      Yes, this will be one of the few sequels I’ll actually be looking forward to! And I do wonder how Barker explains the relation between arakessians and gullaimes – one species whose eggs develop differently depending on conditions? That would be cool! 🤩

      Liked by 1 person

  8. buriedinprint

    This isn’t an author I know/read but I enjoyed reading your thoughts about the book (and the others in the series) all the same. I think it’s great that you try to take the author’s intentions into account when determining whether something “works” or doesn’t. It’s not something I’ve always done, but I feel like I’ve enjoyed reading SO much more, since putting this habit into place. Pirates used to fascinate me when I was a girl – I “played” them as often as I “played house”. More recently, I’ve read Ian Urbina’s The Outlaw Ocean (NF), which has some real-life pirates in it: fascinating!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Great to see you here! 😀
      Thanks for visiting and for your comment. Yes, I think if you’re willing to cut the author some slack and actually consider what s/he had in mind it makes the reading process much more rewarding. Or irritating, when the author’s intentions are less than stellar 🤣 But this process does come with experience, I think.
      Pirates are something that captures imagination of kids of all ages 😉 I still love to read about them, so thanks for the reading advice – I’ll be sure to check out The Outlaw Ocean!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. That’s a high rating AND it reminded you of Liveship Traders too! 😀 I’m eager to read it to sample the worldbuilding. I’d like to read another fantasy that’s set on the high seas and has dragons.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I know you’ve already received a lot of praise for this review- but it really truly is a very well written review! Glad you enjoyed it so much. I am curious how the dragons/environmental diversity factors into everything. You’re right when you say it seems too modern for fantasy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Sarah! 😊
      It’s a small criticism, all things considered, for I really enjoyed the novel for its character development, fresh ideas, and smooth action. But it is a grating one, because I feel that it comes up more often these days – a certain amount of anachronisms that simply catapults me as a reader out of the book’s world, as the inconsistency becomes too great to be ignored 😉
      Still, I really recommend this one! I’d love to read your thoughts on it 😀


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