Publisher: Hachette Audio (Audiobook – 24 September 2019)
Series: The Tide Child – Book One
Length: 17 hours and 2 minutes
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
From one of the brightest new stars in fantasy fiction, R. J. Barker, comes The Bone Ships, a remarkable and extremely captivating new adventure that can be described as Gaunt’s Ghosts meets Moby Dick in an incredibly inventive new fantasy world.
Barker has been making some serious waves in the fantasy genre over the last couple of years, ever since bursting onto the scene in 2017 with his debut novel, Age of Assassins, which started The Wounded Kingdom trilogy. He quickly followed this up in 2018, when he released the second and third books in this trilogy, Blood of Assassins and King of Assassins. I absolutely loved all three books in this trilogy, although I haven’t yet reviewed King of Assassins. Spoiler: it does get five out of five stars from me and recently made my Top Ten pre-2019 Books list.
As a result, I was very excited earlier in the year when I found out that Barker was writing a whole new series. The Bone Ships is the first book in The Tide Child series, and it has been pretty high up on my to-read list for a while, as I have featured it on both my Top Ten Most Anticipated July-December 2019 Releases and my Top Ten Books I Would Like to Read by the End of 2019 lists. I ended up listening to the audiobook version of The Bone Ships, narrated by Jude Owusu, and what I found was an excellent and inventive fantasy read that might just be one of my favourite books of 2019.
For generations the rival nations of the Hundred Isles and the Gaunt Islands have been fighting each other for dominance of the vast oceans that make up their world. In order to fight this bitter conflict, great ships of war were constructed using the bones of the giant sea dragons, the arakeesian, as only these boneships could withstand the rigours of battle and all the horrors the seas contain. However, years of warfare and shipbuilding has taken a terrible toll, as the arakeesian are now all extinct, and both sides’ supplies of dragon bone are nearing their end.
Of all the remaining boneships in the Hundred Isles fleet, none are considered lower than a black ship. Black ships are ships of the dead, where every crewmember aboard has been condemned to die in shame, unless they can redeem themselves through some great act of bravery. However, the crew of the black ship Tide Child have no intention of performing any acts of bravery, and they and their shipwife, Joron Twiner, are content to drink themselves into oblivion—that is, until the arrival of “Lucky” Meas Gillbryn.
Meas is one of the most respected and feared commanders in all the Hundred Isles, but she has recently been disgraced and banished to Tide Child. Quickly taking control of the ship from Joron, Meas works to turn Tide Child and its crew around and make it into an efficient and proud crew of sailors, because they have a dangerous mission to undertake. The first sea dragon in a generation has been spotted, and whichever side hunts it down and claims its bones will gain a distinct advantage in the war. However, Meas has a different plan in mind, and sets out to protect the dragon from all who want it. Facing off against rival ships, raiders, pirates and treachery from within, can the crew of Tide Child survive to become the stuff of legend, or will their death sentence finally be carried out?
Well damn! Now that was a pretty awesome read! This latest offering from Barker was a superb and elaborate tale of redemption, adversity, camaraderie and adventure on the high seas. Not only is it based on an inventive premise and an elaborate new fantasy world but it contains a first-rate and compelling story that I absolutely loved. This is an absolutely fantastic story which is paced out extremely well and, after the necessary introductions, quickly turns into an addictive yarn with a number of clever elements to it. The end result is a powerful and enjoyable tale which is a wonderful self-contained story but which also sets up some intriguing storylines for any future instalments of this new series.
At the heart of The Bone Ships is an excellent story of camaraderie, respect and selfish people coming together to be part of something bigger. The main setting for the book, the boneship Tide Child, is completely crewed by condemned men and women, most of whom have given up on any form of redemption and are more concerned with petty crime and getting drunk. However, when Meas enters the picture, she quickly turns them into an efficient crew and reignites their pride as sailors and soldiers for their nation. This evolves into a really good redemption arc, as the entire crew really starts to come together as a close-knit team and are eventually given a task which could make them all heroes. The vast majority of the crew subsequently rise to the challenge, so much so that their usually hard-as-nails and determined shipwife is at one point willing to sacrifice everything to save them. This is a pretty fun and amazing part of the story, and it helps that Barker spends time introducing a number of key members of the crew and building them up as likeable characters. There are quite a few fantastic and enjoyable characters scattered throughout the story, and their inclusion really helps the reader grow to care about the people on the ship.
The best character relationship in the book can be seen between the two main characters, Joron Twiner and Meas. Joron is book’s point-of-view character and starts the story off as a drunken, apathetic wreck. Upon losing the position of shipwife to Meas, he expects to be placed at the bottom of the ship’s pecking order, but Meas keeps him on as her deckkeeper (first mate), despite her evident low opinion of him. Throughout the course of the book, these two characters grow closer and eventually become something closer to friends, while at the same time they both show considerable growth as characters. Meas spends a lot of time mentoring Joron, and he slowly moves on from his personal despair to become a respected and capable officer on the ship. Moreover, Joron slowly begins to lose the resentment he holds for Meas for taking his position as shipwife, and starts to really respect her, and see why she is a better commander of the ship. At the same time, Joron also starts to better understand what drives Meas, and why she is so determined to succeed in her mission. The two make for a wonderful partnership, and I think that Barker did a particularly fantastic job with the character of Meas, and I loved his portrayal of her as a rough, tough captain with a secret heart of gold.
While all the character elements I mention above are pretty spectacular, to my mind, one of the most striking and enjoyable things about The Bone Ships is the excellent nautical elements that the author was able to work into the story. I have to say that I was very impressed that Barker, whose previous series was set entirely on land, was able to come up with a detailed and exciting story set mostly aboard a ship, especially as he was utilising these elements for the first time in this book. The author installs a huge amount of nautical detail into his story, and the depictions of life and work aboard a ship of war was pretty amazing, so much so that at times, the reader feels like they are actually aboard this ship. I felt that Barker did an amazing job of combining these cool nautical details with the new fantasy elements he introduced in this book to produce a truly unique adventure on the high seas. I also loved all the shipboard action and combat that occurred throughout the course of the book. There were some really elaborate battles set throughout the story, from an attack on the Tide Child from a flotilla of smaller boats, to a wide-ranging battle between opposing groups of larger ships. The utilisation of unique tactics and fantasy elements, such as powerful crossbows, wind magic and the fact that they are fighting above a giant sea dragon, make for some truly thrilling and exciting battle sequences, which were an absolute treat to read. I am so glad that Barker decided to set this story on the open seas, as it made for truly amazing novel.
One of the other things that I liked about The Bone Ships was the excellent new dark fantasy world that Barker created for this new series. Barker has a real talent for this, as seen in The Wounded Kingdom trilogy, and he did it again for this latest book, where the reader is given a fascinating glimpse into a large, ocean dominated world, with all manner of unique fantasy elements in it. This new world is a harsh and deadly place, filled with a huge number of deadly sea beasts that can kill a man in a number of gruesome ways. Into this, Barker also introduces a fun new ship-based culture, complete with a matriarchal society, an intriguing religion and enslaved wind-controlling bird-people. In addition, the two nations that are showcased in this first book are locked in a massive, generations-old conflict, which has completely consumed their societies. I felt that the author did a good job of introducing all the elements of his new world to the reader in a timely and complete manner, and there was never any deficit of knowledge that reduces the reader’s enjoyment of the book. There are so many tiny details that Barker installs in this world, such as the use of paint for good luck, the rarity of metals (island nations, not much room for mines) and the gender bending of ship names and titles (ships are thought of as male, while the captain is called shipwife, no matter their actual gender). All of this, as well as the cool new fantasy elements that Barker comes up with for the story, such as the giant sea-dragons whose bones are used for shipbuilding (what a concept!), make for an exceedingly fascinating background for this fun story.
As I mentioned above, I chose to listen to the audiobook version The Bone Ships, narrated by the talented Jude Owusu. It ran for just over 17 hours in length, which I was able to power through extremely quickly, especially once the story really got going. I have to say that I was really glad that I decided to utilise the audiobook format, as I felt that it helped me visualise all the cool action and excitement that was occurring aboard Tide Child. In addition, I always find that the audiobook format helps me appreciate all the details of a story’s universe, and this was definitely true for The Bone Ships, as I was really able to dive in and fully experience the great new fantasy world in all its glory.
I also have to say how impressed I was with Jude Owusu’s excellent narration of this audiobook. Owusu has a fantastic voice, which I felt really fit into the nautical theme of the entire book. He also comes up with some very distinctive and fitting voices for the various characters that feature within the book, which I felt helped bring out many of these characters personalities. I was particularly impressed with the harsh and commanding voice that he utilised for Meas, and the various sequences where she was barking out orders and threats aboard the ship were a real treat to listen to, as it perfectly encapsulated the shipwife. Other standout characters that Owusu brought to life include Mevans, who the narrator gifted with an exceedingly cheerful voice which fit his personality perfectly, and the mysterious Gullaime, whose narration contained a certain birdy quality to. I also have to commend the real and obvious enthusiasm that Owusu brought to the role. I have always found that enthusiastic narrators can make an audiobook truly come to life, and Owusu was a really good example of this. Not only did his voice contain some noticeable excitement when he narrated the various action sequences throughout the book, but he really got into voicing elements of the story, such as the various shanty-like rhymes that Barker installed throughout the story, or the various nautical response of the crew. The way that he shouted out “Ey” (the sailor’s way of saying yes) multiple times throughout the book was a lot of fun, and I could feel the infectious enthusiasm of the crew while he did this. The sheer passion and vocal skill that Owusu puts into this audiobook is just fantastic, and I cannot recommend this format enough, as it was an amazing way to enjoy this epic book.
The Bone Ships by R. J. Barker is an absolutely outstanding read that I cannot recommend enough. Barker is quickly becoming one of the most impressive new fantasy authors out there, and he honestly gets better with every book he writes. The Bone Ships had so many cool elements to it, and any readers who check it out will be quickly hooked by its captivating story and bold adventure. I cannot wait to see where Barker will take this story next, and I would strongly encourage any reader looking for their next amazing fantasy tale, to check out this great new book. Also, how awesome is the cover for this book!!