Author: R.J. Barker
Title: The Bone Ships
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.
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 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.