Swashbuckling adventure fantasy novel
Content warning: disability, facial difference, child sacrifice
This was the most recent set book for my fantasy book club, and was another one that I hadn’t heard of before. I was a bit slack again and only managed to get through about a fifth before the meeting, but I quickly finished it shortly afterwards.
“The Bone Ships” by RJ Barker is a seafaring fantasy adventure novel and the first in a series called “The Tide Child Trilogy”. In an archipelago called the Hundred Isles, battles are fought, won and lost at sea aboard ships made of the bones of long extinct leviathans. When Joron Twiner finds himself banished to a black ship called the Tide Child and ironically elected as shipmother, he sinks into despair and leaves the ship and crew to rot while he drinks himself into a stupor. However, when the famous Lucky Meas Gilbryn finds herself in the same plight, she quickly usurps him and appoints him her second in command. Despite her reduced political situation, she quickly restores order and confides in him her true mission: to stop the wars once and for all.
This is an interesting and creative novel that draws on the canon of seafaring fiction. The Hundred Isles is a brutal place, and Barker invites the reader to consider a world where power is vested in women who have survived childbirth and produced unblemished children and where people born with disabilities, facial differences or mothers who die in childbirth are all but shunned. The fantasy elements supplement rather than dominate the story, and I really enjoyed the character of the Gullaime whose extraordinary power to harness the wind and difficult temperament must be navigated by Joron through kindness. I was also very interested in the concept of the corpselights; lights made of the souls of firstborn children sacrificed to the Hag goddess that indicate a ship’s health. Barker was a little circumspect about this idea and I wonder if it will be explained further in later books.
Although I enjoyed the book, I think my enjoyment really kicked in after the Gullaime was introduced. Lucky Meas spends a lot of time training her crew and teaching them to operate different parts of the ship which was not of particular interest to me. Some of the political aspects of the book felt a little murky with a lot of things seeming to happen offstage without much rationale. While overall Barker is a clear and compelling author, I did feel that for a fantasy novel set in a completely different world, he drew quite a lot on words from other languages set in this world such as Italian which was a bit of a missed worldbuilding opportunity. It is quite a grim book with lots of people dying in gruesome ways in a world that appears to place little value on individual life.
A very readable and engaging book for lovers of ships, adventure and fantasy alike. If you are like me and enjoy stories about animals and magical creatures, then the Gullaime might win you over as well.