Author: R.J. Barker
Title: The Bone Ship’s Wake
Series: The Tide Child #3
First things first: I actually managed to finish a trilogy by R.J. Barker, so I feel very self-congratulatory. Yay me! Secondly, though, I only managed to finish it because, unlike The Wounded Kingdom trilogy, this one was interesting enough for me to follow it to the end ;). Although I might have made a strategic error in waiting with the review, as my initial enthusiasm waned somewhat. Still, it’s a pretty decent book, almost right to the end.
The two earlier installments, The Bone Ships and Call of the Bone Ships, were very enjoyable seafaring yarn: tall ships, pirates, remote islands, sea dragons, storms and adventure, and a dream of Libertalia thrown in the mix. The motif of changing the unfair status quo, of fighting for social justice for the outcasts and the unfit, of challenging the rule of the dominant caste – all this for me formed the backbone of the previous two books. While The Bone Ships focused mostly on character development, the broader intrigue and worldbuilding became more apparent in the Call of the Bone Ships. I expected The Bone Ship’s Wake to offer some resolution to the above quandary, to show us how the idealistic dream can be realized, at least in part, in the very strict, increasingly beleaguered societies of constant scarcity. Woe is me. I guess I expected too much.
Because The Bone Ship’s Wake is a good book, as mythical adventure books go. There is a lot of emotion, good and bad, plenty of loss and the prophesied, well-deserved triumph, too, paid for in blood and life. There is a load of action, naval chases and battles taken straight out of O’Brian’s novels, terrible monsters lurking in the ice, a religious cult and home abuse, torture and sacrifice, and long-awaited redemption. Some friendships are stronger than species’ differences, and I was glad to see how this particular thread was resolved. I was less happy with the court intrigue, as the choice of the big baddie seemed truly lazy, even if well-intended; yes, the most unhappy with their plight in a society with high levels of iniquity and strict impenetrable caste divisions are not those most downtrodden, but rather those who had tasted the better life and now want more. We know it. But why in this novel does it have to equate with having a total idiot for a ruler? I mean, seriously, you’d have to be blind not to see that your grand vizier might be plotting something evil. You’d have to be totally removed from the very people you’re ruling not to see that something was amiss. But that’s what happens when the author prioritizes the message over logic.
Hmm, looks like I’m steering toward the criticisms, when I wanted to praise the book first ;). I really love Gullaime and their relationship with Joron, and in this book Barker allowed these two characters to shine and their bond to deepen. Gullaime is a spectacular character, the Other that becomes us. I grew fond of Garriya, too, and I had already been pretty fond of Mevans and Cwell, of Lucky Meas and Solemn Muffaz, and of the various captains of Meas’s ragtag fleet. Each of them gets their own little moment, and it’s remarkable how much the author cares for his characters. Yes, Barker writes great characters and gives them very humane and believable development arcs. Many of his protagonists are broken at one point or another, but their strength, and the strength of their relationships, lies in the fact that they pick each other up, that they want to become better for others; that they care for one another in a tender, if sometimes awkward (don’t we all?) way. If you know Barker, though, don’t expect all, if any, of your favourites to survive. The toll of life on the Hundred Isles, and on the Gaunt Islands too, is high – and if you’re a pirate rebel fighting for justice and for revenge on the high seas, well… Suffice to say the crew thins considerably by the end of the book.
I also want to praise the wordlbuilding in The Tide Child trilogy. It’s consistent and imaginative, and really quite sound from the anthropological/sociological perspective – as far as imagined societies go, Barker’s one makes a lot of sense. Sadly, really, as the world of Hundred Isles is a cruel place ruled by rotten compromises and expedience. I found it fascinating to trace the echoes of a past catastrophe, to see the societies built upon ruins of the old world as both resilient and crippled. And I guess this is where my main criticism comes in: the solution proposed by Barker is no solution at all – it’s just an escape. Oh, a very picturesque one, for sure, but an escape still.
So, as a pure escapist entertainment (see what I did there? :P), this book still gets 8/10 stars. I do love a high seas adventure, and Barker knows how to spin good yarn. The Bone Ship’s Wake was engaging, fast-paced, tender and cruel at times, and delivered on the character development front in spades. But as a food for thought, and that’s how I usually rate my books, it can’t get more than 7/10. So, a compromise is in order.