Publisher: Orbit (Trade Paperback – 24 November 2020)
Series: The Tide Child – Book Two
Length: 491 pages
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
One of the biggest rising stars in fantasy fiction, the always impressive RJ Barker, returns with the second novel in The Tide Child trilogy, Call of the Bone Ships, an epic read that was one of the best fantasy releases of 2020.
Welcome back to the boneship known as Tide Child, a black ship of the damned crewed by those condemned to death for various crimes in the Hundred Isles and tasked with fighting in a war against their nation’s rivals, the Gaunt Islanders. Following their first grand adventure, which saw Tide Child save the last of the vast sea dragons from whose bones the powerful ships are made, much has changed in the world. The Shipwife of Tide Child, Lucky Meas Gilbryn, seeks to undermine her mother, the ruler of the Hundred Isles, by working with black ships of both nations to create a new settlement outside of their tyrannical controls. However, their previous decision to save the last dragon has had unexpected consequences, and soon the ocean is alive with the news that more dragons have returned. With their return comes the battle to kill the creatures and harvest their bones to create more ships, as the nation with the most ships will rule the waves. However, the crew of Tide Child find themselves drawn into a different conflict when they chance upon a damaged ship with a hold full of dead or dying prisoners.
Attempting to find out more about the mysterious cargo, Meas and Tide Childs’ Deckkeeper, Joron Twiner, try to follow it to its original destination, only to discover that their new island sanctuary has been destroyed and its people carried off for a nefarious purpose. As they start to fight back against their former comrades in the Hundred Isles, Tide Child finds itself in the midst of a dark conspiracy which will push the entire world into chaos and conflict. A new war is coming to the oceans, and no-one is safe from its deadly consequences.
Well damn, how does Barker keep on doing it? Over the last few years, RJ Barker has been one of the most consistent and outstanding fantasy fiction writers out there, producing several incredible and deeply enjoyable novels. I was a major fan of his debut, The Wounded Kingdom trilogy, as all three novels, Age of Assassins, Blood of Assassins and King of Assassins were amazing reads, with each one being better than the last. However, Barker’s writing was on a whole other level in 2019 when he published the first entry in The Tide Child trilogy, The Bone Ships, an epic read that detailed the trials and tribulations of a condemned crew aboard a ship made from dragon bones. I absolutely loved The Bone Ships and it was one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2019. Needless to say, I was extremely eager to receive my copy of Call of the Bone Ships, and it was one of my most anticipated reads for the second half of 2020. Unfortunately, circumstances forced me to hold off reading this novel until the end of the year, which I deeply regret as this was another awesome novel from Barker that got an easy five-star rating from me.
For Call of the Bone Ships, Barker has come up with another exciting and amazing narrative which follows a unique group of protagonists on a deadly adventure through a dark fantasy world. Told primarily from the point of view of Tide Child’s Deckkeeper (first mate), Jordon Twiner, this is a massive character-driven story filled with action, intrigue, and betrayal. While the first novel in this series focused on a wild adventure as a ship followed their new captain on a quest to find a sea dragon, this second novel focuses more on the politics of the Hundred Isles, as the Tide Child and their allies attacking as undercover rebels to undermine the cruel ruling hierarchy and determine what their plans are. After an intriguing introduction, Call of the Bone Ships swiftly devolves into a war novel, as Meas and her crew begin to fight back against the oppressive Hundred Islanders who oppose them. At the same time, Joron is forced to deal with a number of personal issues aboard the ship as he finds himself thrust into the midst of danger and betrayal as everything in his life goes to hell around him. The plot of Call of the Bone Ships goes into some dark but captivating directions, and the Tide Child crew are hit with some major curveballs and tragic events. All of this leads up to an impressive conclusion which is highlighted by a major and dramatic cliff-hanger that is going to require any reader of this book to desperately wait for the final entry in this series to be released. While this book was a tad slow to start, especially if you were unfamiliar or somewhat forgetful of the events of The Bone Ships, it eventually resulted in a truly epic and outstanding story that proves impossible to put down once you get wrapped in its intense and captivating narrative. The plot of Call of the Bone Ships has a fantastic flow on from the previous entry in the series and served as an excellent sequel, making great use of several of the story elements introduced in The Bone Ships and more than living up to the hype Barker established with the first The Tide Child novel.
One of the things that I have been most impressed with for this series is the author’s ability to create a gripping and consistently well-written maritime story. Narratives that are primarily set aboard boats are notoriously hard to write, but Barker has risen to the challenge, writing a novel rich in naval and maritime detail, with a major fantasy fiction edge to it. Call of the Bone Ships contains an intense amount of intriguing detail about the coming and goings aboard the ship out at sea and Barker does an amazing job highlighting the various day-to-day actions a crew are expected to undertake, as well as all the unique features that makes a ship in this fantasy universe different from real-world ships. This impressive attention to detail translates extremely well into several naval battles and combat sequences, and it was cool to see the Tide Child engage in battle with other ships in some outstanding and beautifully written sequences. In addition, Barker ensures that every major character in this novel had a real nautical feel to them. Everything about these characters, from the way they spoke to how they act or think aboard the ship made you think of old sea-salts who had spent a lifetime on the waves, which helps to bring an interesting ring of realism to the story. I also really love the intense and encapsulating atmospheres that Barker creates with his excellent writing ability, and you get a real sense of the moods of the entire ship throughout the novel, whether it be despair at something bad that has befallen the ship, or the sense of repetitive boredom that arrives from the ship doing the same action day after day with no break in routine. All of this helps to produce a truly exceptional narrative, and I cannot emphasise how impressive the author’s various nautical inclusions are.
While the series is nominally about the dangerous events that the Tide Child finds itself involved with, in many ways its plot is driven by the growth and development of the main protagonist and point-of-view character Joron Twiner. At the start of this series, Joron was a depressed and embittered young man who was unjustly forced aboard the black ship and made its Shipwife due to his lack of courage and determination. But after meeting Meas and beginning to serve under her, Joron has become a competent officer who has the respect of most of his crew and who is now dedicated to Meas and her mission. Call of the Bone Ships turns out to be a major novel for Joron as he participates in several adventures and battles, showing his skill as a commander, warrior and leader throughout the novel. However, participation in these adventures has severe consequences as Joron gets beaten down and broken apart multiple times from injuries, betrayal and personal tragedy. Watching Joron suffer is quite a hard part of this novel as the reader becomes extremely attached to him due to his likeable personality and sheer determination. However, it is worth it to see Joron rise again as a stronger and much more developed person, and this ended up being a fantastic part of his personal story arc. A lot of this book is also dedicated to Joron’s mysterious ability as the caller, someone who is prophesied by the Gullaime (the enslaved avian wind mystics who provide power to the ships) as a great saviour. Joron, who first experienced these powers while calling a sea dragon to his aid, continues to develop certain abilities which prove to be rather effective and spectacular throughout the novel and opens up a lot of opportunities for the character. The end of Call of the Bone Ships leaves Joron in an extremely intriguing position, and I am deeply curious about how his story will end in the final novel.
In addition to his complex protagonist, Barker also includes a literal raft of impressive and captivating characters, most of whom serve as members of Tide Child’s crew. These great characters each have distinctive personalities and add a great deal to the narrative. The main side character is easily Lucky Meas, the Shipwife of Tide Child who has turned her ship from a bastion of reprobates to a group of heroes with a noble purpose (mostly). Meas is a truly inspirational character who has served as a close mentor to Joron and who continues to lead her crew with wisdom, experience, and humility. Meas was a little less utilised in this novel than in the first book, with Joron taking more of a lead now that he has some command experience. She was still a fantastic and distinctive character within this latest novel, and I really enjoyed where her personal story arc went, even though we still do not have that much information about her backstory. Another great character was Tide Child’s ultra-powerful Gullaime, who continues to work along the crew, especially Joron, who has a special connection to the creature. The Gullaime also has a rather intriguing arc in this novel, and it is clear that he will play a rather substantial role in the ending of the overall series. The mysterious bird creature also develops a lot more as a character in this novel, especially after encountering different members of his species, although he continues to provide his entertaining tirades of broken speech to the crew. The rest of the crew prove to be extremely compelling, and I liked the fact that Barker spent time expanding out the roles and personalities of a huge number of side characters, including giving several of them brief point-of-view chapters. However, in some of these cases it did seem that the author only gave these characters more of a role so that he could then brutally kill them off, much to the heartbreak of the reader. A number of these characters do get some rather substantial and enjoyable story arcs, and it will be interesting to see where the remaining members of the crew end up in the final book.
I have a lot of love for the dark and elaborate fantasy worlds that Barker creates in his novels, and the one featured in The Tide Child series is particularly amazing. I deeply enjoyed this harsh and cruel world of small islands, deadly seas and warring nations, especially with the cool gender-bent world (for example, captains are known as Shipwives, while boats are referred to as him). I really enjoyed returning to this amazing and creative world, especially as it proves to be an incredibly rich setting for the novel’s awesome and addictive narrative. Barker does some excellent world-building in this second entry in the series, and you get some cool features, such as different groups of Gullaimes who lack wind powers but serve as jailers for their powered brethren, some new powers for the characters and some intriguing new locations. All of this helped to create a more elaborate and impressive narrative and it is always cool to see more of this grim and deadly fantasy universe, especially as Barker’s awesome writing bring so many of the more impressive elements, such as the giant dragons, to life in such epic fashion.
The final thing I wanted to praise about Call of the Bone Ships were all the little details featured within the paperback version of the novel, that I would have previously missed in the first The Tide Child novel due to me checking out The Bone Ships in audiobook format. I definitely have to highlight the impressive and intricate cover above, which was drawn by talented artist Edward Bettison. The covers for this series are extremely cool, and I cannot wait to see what amazing design the artist comes up for the final entry in the series. I also really liked the awesome artwork that was featured within the novel. Not only is there a fantastic and detailed map at the very front of the book but there is also some sweet artwork at the start of each chapter, which depicts locations, creatures and characters from within the book. Barker has also featured a short index at the end of the novel which contains some of the crew titles that were created for the series, detailing what each crew member is supposed to do. All of these details are great and eye-catching inclusions to the novel, and I felt that it made Call of the Bone Ships just a little bit more special.
Call of the Bone Ships by RJ Barker was another epic and outstanding novel that shows why Barker is one of the most impressive new fantasy talents in recent years. This incredible sequel to 2019’s The Bone Ships contains an exceptional and addictive story at sea, featuring rich and complex characters and all set within a creative and vibrantly dark fantasy world. The combination of these awesome elements helps to create a captivating and powerful read which turned out to be one of the best books of the year. I cannot recommend this novel enough. If you have not found out about RJ Barker yet, you are really missing out!