R.J. Barker, Call of the Bone Ships (2020)

Author: R.J. Barker

Title: Call of the Bone Ships

Format: Paperback

Pages: 528

Series: The Tide Child #2

Phew, this one has been waiting for its review for a good while now, about three months, give or take a few weeks ๐Ÿ˜‰. I blame NetGalley, the reviews for NG books usually have a โ€œbest beforeโ€ or a โ€œbest byโ€ date I need to abide byโ€ฆ But Iโ€™m also responsible โ€“ to put it simply, I enjoyed Call of the Bone Ships a lot, but still less than book one, The Bone Ships. The reasons for this development are many, but the most important of them all is the worldbuilding. It seems to me that the author did all the heavy lifting already in the first installment, creating a unique universe filled with le Guin-inspired world of islands and seas, gender-reversed roles, tall ships and dragons. As a result, the second book is focused predominantly on character and plot development, and while both are laudably consummate (oh all right, character development more than plot, but more on that later), nevertheless the lure of the uniqueness can no longer apply and the new worldbuilding details are too few to keep the mood of discovery afloat.

But ab ovo: in Call of the Bone Ships the crew of the Tide Child must deal with the revelations left in wake of the first installment. And here I must insert the unavoidable spoiler alert, because the second book grows organically from the first, building upon the foundation formed in The Bone Ships, and thereโ€™s no way to talk about Call of the Bone Ships without mentioning The Bone Ships (well, thereโ€™s a hint in the title) ๐Ÿ˜‰. So, the arakeesians swim the seas again. In the never-ending war between Hundred Isles and Gaunt Islands the sighting of a water dragon whose whole body can be disassembled and used as a source of various lethal weapons, from ships to spears, is a call for a hunt. Whoever finds the means to kill the dragons and get their bodies will obtain a staggering advantage over their enemy โ€“ one that can end the war for good with a crushing defeat of one side. No wonder then that both sides scramble to action, absolutely convinced both of their own righteousness and the truth of the old adage that ends justify all means. Blood flows freely, unspeakable atrocities are committed in the name of greater good, and the noose around the Tide Child gets increasingly tighter. And for the Tide Childโ€™s crew, caught between the warring sides, the whole situation just gets a whole lot more complicated โ€“ and deadly.

There are quite a few intriguing reveals in this second installment. The development of the main characters is given prominence over nearly all other aspects of the book, and Barker enthusiastically devotes a lot of his attention to the process of shaping of the relationships between the Tide Childโ€™s crew members. As a result, Joron and Meas, Gullaime and Dinyl, Berhof and Farys, and so many others get the attention they fully deserve. While their journey is fraught with danger, pain, betrayal and death (and there is a lot of death this time around), it also makes them as characters more believable, multi-dimensional, and ultimately more real. Gullaime doesnโ€™t disappoint and Iโ€™m glad Barker gave them a bit more space on the pages, on which they can unfurl their wings and indulge their ever-growing curiosity. I love the imagery Barker created for this creature, seamlessly melding human and bird features, both physical and psychological. I also love the mystery surrounding the guillames, the glimpses of their social structure, their beliefs and culture. And I couldnโ€™t help but notice another link to Hobbโ€™s Fitz and Fool characters in the growing relationship between Joron and Guillame.

The author must have taken to heart the criticisms of the slow pace of The Bone Ships, because in Call of the Bone Ships (argh, letโ€™s just call it Call, all right?) the action hurries along at breakneck speed, from one crisis to another. And I know I might be in a minority here, but I actually preferred the measured pace of the first book, where everything had its place and the small idiosyncrasies and stories of the Scattered Archipelago and its people could be appreciated in all their intimate allure. In the second book, the stakes are up, the players multiply, and the game itself gets a whole lot bigger. And Iโ€™d be completely fine with it, except that Call tries so hard to avoid the trap of the middle book that at times it risks losing coherence, logic, and believability only to get the multifaceted action going. I wonโ€™t point fingers, but there are several instances where the need for speed trumps the need for realism, and we get a lot more danger, unforeseen obstacles, and close shaves with death than humanly possible.

There is an undercurrent of convenience beyond the unbelievable confluence of events. And while the inner journey of the protagonist, or the message, are often more important to the author than the internal logic of the created world, in the case of The Tide Child trilogy with its detailed worldbuilding I feel justified to point out that this result seems more like an unforeseen side effect than the authorial intention. Obviously, by the end of book two we know that Joronโ€™s heroic journey is about to enter the critical phase; that the events arrange themselves so neatly around that need is slightly disappointing, but only because this slip so clearly shows itself on the background of Barkerโ€™s admirable wordsmithing skills and splendid imagination. The anachronistic worldview, however much I may agree with it, is still very much visible in this second installment โ€“ but I may have get used to it a little by now and, with the exception of few instances, it didnโ€™t bother me as much as before. The pirate democratic heaven, however, was still a too much โ€“ as well as the main villain, going into full Maleficent/evil priest from Conan the Barbarian mode๐Ÿ˜‰.

All in all, Call of the Bone Ships is a highly enjoyable successor to The Bone Ships. While the weaknesses of the first book are still very much present, some even more noticeable than before, and the internal logic takes a nosedive, this second installment also manages to deliver more action, more emotion, and more character development. Iโ€™m very interested to see how the final installment will play out, how Barker will manage to tie all the loose ends into a coherent whole, and which of my theories will be validated ๐Ÿ˜‰.

Score: 8/10

51 thoughts on “R.J. Barker, Call of the Bone Ships (2020)

  1. Loved your review! So, you found Le Guin, Hobbs, and Howard in this book? Honestly, it doesnโ€™t help to drop the names, because in my humble opinion there is no way that Barker could fill those shoes. Itโ€™s more like heโ€˜s disappearing in those ocean sized shoes.
    My opposition to your assessment might come from my disappointment with this novel. It was a weak three stars.
    What did you think about the cliffhanger?
    More rambling over there ๐Ÿ˜Ž https://reiszwolf.wordpress.com/2020/11/27/call-of-the-bone-ships-tide-child-2-2020-high-fantasy-novel-by-rj-barker/

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Heh, I found inspirations from Le Guin, Hobb, and Howard ๐Ÿ˜œ That’s definitely not the same thing ๐Ÿ˜‰
      Oh, I do comment the cliffhanger, albeit obliquely, in the part when I criticize unbelievable coincidences – and the infatuation with Campbell’s heroic journey. In short, meh.

      I enjoyed reading this book, but felt the flaws of the first installment were more visible here – that said, though, I’ve read plenty of reviews saying they liked the ramped up action more than the sedate pace of the first novel and didn’t even notice the resulting inconsistencies of the plot, the Deus ex Machina, the oit-of-character behavior necessary to arrive at this cliffhanger. I guess it’s hard to please everyone, but I’m still quite curious about the final installment ๐Ÿ˜‰

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Me too! Looks like those faults were screaming louder at me than at others.
        Campbellโ€™s heroic journey is difficult to apply to trilogies. He doesnโ€™t talk about journeys within journeys or spreading them out over several books in a sequence of journeys. Iโ€™m not an expert, though.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Oh yes, you can apply Campbell to whole series, and I have a feeling many authors do exactly that – starting with Lucas who readily admitted it years ago. After all, a series is just one long story ๐Ÿ˜
          I like maritime themes and find them rarely in fantasy – and Barker is actually pretty good in making his one float ๐Ÿ˜‰

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Good review! This one is going on the “maybe” pile. The same thing I said at Andreas’s blog about the Rebecca Roanhorse book ๐Ÿ˜€ Seems like a lot of interesting epic fantasy books are coming out lately that all show some potential, but I’ll keep watching from the sidelines to see which ones will float to the top.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks! ๐Ÿ˜Š
      I’m usually wary of thing that float to the top… ๐Ÿคฃ
      I do like this series in big part because of its maritime theme – most of the plot takes place on a ship, there are storms, naval battles, course charting, sea-related military training, etc. You can read the review for the first installment to see if that’s something you’d be interested in! ๐Ÿ˜

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I usually like maritime adventures… the thing is.. I am doing the big Malazan read and I need to read Abercrombie’s latest books and that sort of fills in the fantasy slots in my reading schedule for this year. Maybe next year I will try one of those newer series like this one or Black Sun or the Evan Winters series.

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  3. As usual, a comprehensive and highly entertaining review. In fact, given your comments and those of the other readers who’ve added to your discussion here, I think that’s where I’ll leave this trilogy. What a shame, I was quite drawn to reading something that may have been inspired by Le Guin. Lovely post, Ola.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Cath! ๐Ÿ˜Š

      Well, I think you’d actually like this one ๐Ÿ™‚ It’s not le Guin, because nobody can be le Guin except her, but it’s a really decent effort – more adventurous than philosophical, but with a lot of solid character development.

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  4. What an intriguing review! I always like to find comments that differ from my own view of any given book, because from them often come interesting insights that I might have otherwise missed. Of course I enjoyed this second volume in the series more than you did, and found that the diminished attention to background and increased focus on the characters was exactly what the doctor ordered ๐Ÿ˜‰ but there is still book 3 to take into consideration and see if the author will manage to balance things out in the end. Given his track record, I’m quite optimistic…
    And at least we can both agree on the increased depth on the Gullaime, my very favorite crew member ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do love to see different points of view on this, reflecting personal preferences and various levels of tolerance and enthusiasm ๐Ÿ˜‰ Between you and Andreas, we have the whole continuum covered! ๐Ÿ˜€

      Yes, team Gullaime all the way! ๐Ÿ˜€
      Btw, have you read Hobb’s Fitz and Fool series, Maddalena?

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Well, your curiosity might be piqued by the fact that Barker seems to have been heavily inspired by Hobb, both in terms of characters, their development, and their relationships, and in terms of worldbuilding ๐Ÿ˜
          Plus, I have a feeling you’ll love Fitz and Fool and Nighteyes! ๐Ÿคฉ

          …have I convinced you to bump Hobb up your TBR yet??? ๐Ÿ˜œ

          Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I can see you not enjoying this overly much, Bart ๐Ÿ˜‰ Weirdly enough, I’m willing to overlook some of the flaws here because the writing and characters are really good – but normally I’d be very cross with the anachronistic worldview and the lazy plot resolutions ๐Ÿ˜‰

      Btw, I started reading the jellyfish book – very interesting!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. If I wouldn’t know the faults were there before I started reading, I might overlook them too if the rest already drew me in, but if I know of them upfront, that’s a whole lot harder…

        Cool about the jellyfish! Do let me know what you think after you’ve finished it. I’m rereading Shadow of the Torturer atm – didn’t you get a netgaley copy of that?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Heh, sorry about that! ๐Ÿ˜‰

          Yes, I did get it from NG – but there are a few books I need to read before I get to Wolfe. I’m reading Suzuki’s short stories atm, quite interesting, and I have a deadline for the new Murderbot , Powell, and Moreno-Garcia books ๐Ÿ˜‰ But I should start reading Wolfe in May (hopefully :D)

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            1. ๐Ÿ˜‰ Izumi Suzuki was a Japanese SF writer from the 80’s – she committed suicide in 1986. Her collection is interesting, mainly because it was extremely perceptive with regards to the psychological changes which became more prevalent in the 21st century (possibly again): the titular boredom, ennui, superficiality, etc. Also, very subversively feminist, much beyond the time it was written in. I’m a third in, so can’t say too much, but it’s very intriguing.

              Gareth Powell is a SF author – I haven’t read anything of his yet, I have his space opera The Recollection on my roster now.

              Liked by 1 person

  5. This was a really interesting review! I have yet to start this series, but I really hope to get to it soon! I am curious to finally see for myself this worldbuilding, and I am sorry this second book didn’t meet all your expectations, but since I love a good worldbuilding but usually I go all in for the characters, I am quite optimistic toward this series!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Dawie! ๐Ÿ˜€

      I must admit I let my Warhammer reading languish on the side somewhat… Still on the second Gaunt novel! ๐Ÿ˜…

      But if you find a moment/opportunity to read this seafaring series, I think you might enjoy it too!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I absolutely adored this. Easily one of my favourite fantasy novels in recent memory.

    The character development in this was fun and it’s left me wanting a gullaime of my very own. But I know, if asked, what the response would be: NOT WANT!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Aww guillaume… ๐Ÿคฉ They’re an absolutely fantastic creature, want to read more about them!

      Btw, is it just me or do you also think that guillaume-Joron relationship seems based on the prophet-catalyst relationship from Hobb’s Fitz and Fool series? ๐Ÿ˜‰

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I hadn’t thought of that but, now you mention it, the similarities are there.

        The next book will be the last in the series and I feel like there’s going to be something big with Gullaime. How heart-breaking was it when Shorn sacrificed himself and, after all the NOT WANT, Gullaime was upset โ˜น

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yeah, poor guillaume… I had that theory at the beginning that guillaumes were somehow related to arakeesians, like the water forms of Hobb’s dragons to the flying ones – certainly they can communicate and they talk about familial links – but hopefully Barker will come up with something more original than that. Looking forward to the final book!

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  7. Awesome and thorough review as always, Ola! I love how you break things down so perfectly, drawing parallels with titan-esque classics and revealing how these newer generation writers draw inspiration from them to create their own thing. For some reason, I feel like you have A LOT of expectations for the finale and I hope the final book will impress you sufficiently to consider this trilogy decent! ๐Ÿ˜›

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Lashaan! ๐Ÿ˜Š
      I can’t help but see the links and inspirations and lifted ideas… Maybe should’ve been a detective! ๐Ÿคฃ๐Ÿคฃ๐Ÿคฃ

      Yes, I do have quite high expectations for the last installment – I really hope Baker won’t take the easy way out… I didn’t care for the cliffhanger, it seemed very artificial and a clear example of authorial fiat to muddy the waters, so there’s a bit of apprehension in my expectations too! ๐Ÿ˜€

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  8. buriedinprint

    It seems to kinda make sense, that “need for speed” would overrun realism. And I suppose most people are just impatient with the second book in a series to begin with. I imagine that it must be as hard to be a trilogy’s second book as it must be to be a middle child in a family of three. I just finished the second of Haida/Heilsuk author Eden Robinson’s Trickster trilogy and it was very good but how can you not want to just get to the third book, eh? (The third is waiting for pickup at the library now, so I shan’t have to wait much longer.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, you’re right: the readers’ pressure – and the publisher’s – is probably an important factor in how the second books are shaped. Still, I cannot help but think it’s ultimately to the detriment of the book, always considered not for what it is but for what it isn’t (a beginning or an end).

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