Ship of the Dead: A Review of The Bone Ships, by RJ Barker

Once upon a time, there was a genre of fiction that took the world by storm.  Following daring captains upon the high seas, engaging battles between warships, and fantastical hunts for white whales, nautical fiction was once the talk of every reader.  From Moby Dick in 1851, to the Aubrey-Maturin series in the 20th century, nautical fiction brings the world’s oceans to the forefront of adventure.  For most of human history, sailing was fraught with danger and the sea was little understood.  Sailors knew enough to be cautious, and nautical fiction was an opportunity to take a look at their stories and show the kinds of adventures that could be found on the waves.  While nautical fiction has declined in popularity, it has never disappeared.  Occasionally, an author such as RJ Barker decides to take this fiction staple and inject it with something else.  In this way, we get The Bone Ships, nautical fiction for a fantasy world.

The Bone Ships takes place in a world without a name, a world of endless ocean and hundreds of islands.  The known world in the novel does not appear to contain any large landmasses, let alone a continent or two.  Instead, the seas are dotted with hundreds of smaller islands, separated by a mountain range that spans the world, with only a few gaps.  Skearith’s Spine, as it is called by the world’s inhabitants, is the only thing separating the two nations of the world.  On one side is the Gaunt Islands, believed to be savages who raid for children and supplies.  One the other is the Hundred Isles, where the main characters hail from.  These two nations are stuck in an endless cycle of warfare, bloodshed, and raids on each other’s islands.  Resources seem to be relatively scarce in this world, with creatures of both sea and land appearing much more dangerous than in reality.  Each side maintains a massive fleet of ships constructed from dragon bones, the most valuable resource of all.  To capture one of these ships, or to steal a supply of bones, is both a win and an unintentional way to prolong their strife.

The two societies of The Bone Ships are actually not dissimilar in their beliefs and customs, although the residents would rather maintain the fiction that they are as different as can be.  It is harder to fight and kill people when you share so much in common.  Religion plays a massive part of their lives, although, like many things in this novel, it is rarely for the best.  The people of this world believe that their god is dead, murdered by their own relative, contributing to their rampant fatalism.  Society is ruled by a sect of women known as the Bern, women who have been able to bear many children and children without birth defects.  It appears the rate of birth defect and infant mortality is exceptionally high.  If a woman dies in childbirth, their child is considered weak.  But if a woman is able to give birth to a healthy firstborn, the baby is sacrificed to their fleet of ships.  The people believe that their souls fuel their ships and power them.  Ships without these corpselights are considered dead, and solely crewed by criminals in a life sentence.  Despite, or maybe because of the focus on women’s roles in society, sexism as we know it does not appear to exist.  Women and men can perform the same jobs and no preference is paid to one gender or the other.  In fact, women are, rightly, granted more power as they are the sole holders of the power of procreation.

The main character of The Bone Ships is Joron Twiner, and the story is entirely told from his third-person point-of-view.  The story never leaves his head and everything is filtered through his perceptions.  When the novel opens, we find Joron as captain of his own ship of the dead, Tide Child.  He leads a crew that holds no respect for him and has hidden his ship away from the fleet which should command them.  He is weak, ineffectual, uncaring, cowardly, and an alcoholic on top of everything.  In short, Joron is far from the typical fantasy protagonist.  In any other story, he would turn out to be a villain, or would be a secondary character who betrays the main at a pivotal moment.  Instead, we follow Joron throughout events and watch him transform from the pitiful person at the beginning, to someone actually worthy of respect.  Through the story, he finds a new purpose in life, deals with his alcoholism, mostly overcomes his cowardice, and earns the undying respect of his crew.  We also begin to see hints that there is something else, something unseen, happening in Joron.  He is more connected to the world than he realizes.

The other main character in the novel is Lucky Meas.  While the story is never actually told from her POV, she is just as important as Joron, if not more.  She is the main catalyst for his transformation and is responsible for moving the plot forward and dragging Tide Child into events that promise to change this fictional world forever.  In the context of the novel, Lucky Meas is a legendary captain and first-born daughter to the rules of the Hundred Isles.  When she was born, the priests attempted to sacrifice her, as is their custom.  But when they tried, the sea rose up and killed them, sparing the child.  Seen as a blessing by some and a curse by others, Meas is condemned to the black ships as punishment for an unknown crime and resolves to take Joron’s ship for herself.  On the surface, Meas portrays herself as utterly infallible and perfect in every way.  But there are moments when Joron sees cracks in her surface and realizes that so much of Meas’ mystique is a necessary act.  The Bone Ships is actually the first novel in a planned series, and it is likely future novels will further pull back the layers of Lucky Meas.

The Bone Ships is part of a recent trend in fantasy to experiment and embrace the cruelty that can be found in the world.  The characters in the novel are all unpleasant in some way, and it is difficult to point out anyone as a “good” person, though some show the capacity for good.  Death comes easily and it comes quickly for these people, and the certainty of their demise bleeds into every part of the culture.  Barker fully dives into this mindset with a main character, Joron, who fully believes in the ways of his world.  But The Bone Ships is only book one of a series, and the events of the novel have already set up some twists.  In book two, we will once again join Joron Twiner and the crew of the Tide Child as they threaten to blow up the status quo of their world.

The Bone Ships can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold

Total Read Time: 25 days

Next on the List: Splintegrate, by Deborah Teramis Christian

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