The Bone Ships, RJ Barker (Orbit 978-0-316-48796-2, $15.99, 500pp, tp) September 2019. Cover by Edward Bettison.
The Bone Ships is RJ Barker’s fourth novel, the first in a new series after his well-received Wounded Kingdom trilogy. I haven’t read the Wounded Kingdom books (Age of Assassins, Blood of Assassins, and King of Assassins), which makes The Bone Ships my first encounter with Barker’s work. I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did.
It turned out I enjoyed it a lot, though – like many fantasy novels – the logistics of how the food supply interacts with the worldbuilding leaves me with many questions.
In a world where ships are built from the bones of ancient dragons, where fertility is the route to power, and where firstborn children are sacrificed to the ships, the Hundred Isles and the Gaunt Isles have been at war for generations. The dragons are all dead and gone, so no new ships can be built. The old ones are slowly wearing out. Perhaps eventually the war will end for lack of ability to fight….
Joron Twiner is a young man of the Hundred Isles, a fisherman’s son, who found himself condemned to one of the Hundred Isles’ ships of the dead* and by a quirk of circumstance ended up its shipwife – the Hundred Isles word for captain. The novel opens with that captaincy being taken from him in a duel, by “Lucky” Meas Gilbryn, a woman with a fierce reputation and talent for command, who has been condemned to the ships of the dead for political reasons. Initially, Joron hates Meas, though she keeps him as her second-in-command (or Deckholder), but gradually his respect for and loyalty to her grows.
Meas needs Joron’s ship and his captaincy because, as it turns out, the dragons aren’t all dead and gone. One has been spotted in distant waters, headed for its old breeding ground, and whoever first succeeds in hunting it down and harvesting its bones will gain an advantage for the war – and guarantee that the war will continue for generations more. Meas is one of the few who wants the war to end, and, to that end, she intends to protect the dragon and kill it only once its body cannot be recovered. That is, if it can be killed by a single ship at all.
Barker has an interesting approach to worldbuilding, particularly when it comes to the structure of the Hundred Isles’ society and the value placed on fertility. This is a relatively grim world, but one where women hold the highest positions. And it’s very clear how much Barker has been influenced by the golden age of sail and its most famous literary aficionados, such as Patrick O’Brien (though his short attention to the food supply of the bone ships’ sailors inclines me to believe he’s never read Daniel Baugh’s masterful and compelling history of naval administration in the first part of the 18th century, British Naval Administration in the Age of Walpole**). This is a novel about growing trust, comradeship, and developing competence – and also about politics, power, and the consequences of generations of war.
The Bone Ships is told entirely from Joron’s point of view. At first it’s difficult to see him as anything other than (for good reason, mind) rather pathetically self-destructive and annoyingly xenophobic, but he grows out of both traits across the arc of his character development, into an interesting young man who may be more than he seems – at least so thinks the gullaime, the magical (but alien) member of his crew who can move the wind and whose people are essentially enslaved by the Hundred Isles.
Speaking of character, and character development, Barker is good at sketching believable individuals in a handful of lines, and very good at showing the complexities of the handful of other major significant characters, like Meas Gilbryn, through Joron’s eyes. (Meas is a fascinating, albeit at times grim, character.)
It would be an oversight to close a discussion of The Bone Ships without mentioning Barker’s skill with a battle scene. The action scenes here are vivid, tense, and believable in the contours of their violence. Barker writes ship-to-ship combat and more personal violence with a deft and controlled hand.
I’m not entirely in love with The Bones Ships and its world, but this is only the first volume in a projected trilogy, and I’m definitely interested in what might happen next.
*The crews of ships of the dead are expected to die in battle, and have very little status.
**I’m way too much of a geek about logistics. If you, too, love logistics and sailing ships and the history of developing a civil service, read that book.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, her Patreon, or Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.
This review and more like it in the January 2020 issue of Locus.
While you are here, please take a moment to support Locus with a one-time or recurring donation. We rely on reader donations to keep the magazine and site going, and would like to keep the site paywall free, but WE NEED YOUR FINANCIAL SUPPORT to continue quality coverage of the science fiction and fantasy field.