Call of the Bone Ships by RJ Barker

Call of the Bone Ships Cover

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!

The Bone Ships by R. J. Barker

The Bone Ships Cover

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!!