Author: R.J. Barker
Title: Call of the Bone Ships
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 😉. I blame NetGalley, the reviews for NG books usually have a “best before” or a “best by” date I need to abide by… But I’m also responsible – 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 there’s no way to talk about Call of the Bone Ships without mentioning The Bone Ships (well, there’s a hint in the title) 😉. 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 – 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 Child’s crew, caught between the warring sides, the whole situation just gets a whole lot more complicated – 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 Child’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 doesn’t disappoint and I’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 couldn’t help but notice another link to Hobb’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, let’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 I’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 won’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 Joron’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 Barker’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 – but I may have get used to it a little by now and, with the exception of few instances, it didn’t bother me as much as before. The pirate democratic heaven, however, was still a too much – as well as the main villain, going into full Maleficent/evil priest from Conan the Barbarian mode😉.
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. I’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 😉.