The Bone Ships by RJ Barker


For generations, the Hundred Isles have built their ships from the bones of ancient dragons to fight an endless war. The dragons disappeared, but the battles for supremacy persisted. Now the first dragon in centuries has been spotted in far-off waters, and both sides see a chance to shift the balance of power in their favour. Because whoever catches it will win not only glory, but the war.

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Okay, so first off I did not expect to love this book as much as I did. I finished it yesterday afternoon and since then most of my thoughts have revolved around it, a phenomenon I like to call a book hangover. The impulse when I finish a book like this is to start reading it again immediately, but I shall write about it instead…

“‘Give me your hat.’
They are not the sort of words that you expect to start a legend, but they were the first words he ever heard her say.
She said them to him, of course.”

This opening is iconic, in my opinion, and drew me in right away, but then the next few pages took me two weeks to get through, which is why I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy the book, or whether I’d even finish it. The reason is the jargon; this is a book set mostly on a ship, in a culture that values their seafaring ability so much that it’s in almost all aspects of their vocabulary. Not only that, but the ship terminology is a fantastical one because their system is not the same as ours, and it’s initially alienating to the reader because there is no translation for us.

There is an index in the back, but it took me a while to realise that, and once I did things were easier for me. And by the end of the book, the strange terminology was one of my favourite aspects of the reading experience. I love the way the ranks on the ship don’t change based on the gender of the person who holds the title, the way the ships are described as  still-living beings, the way the fighting words make so much sense in the middle of the action. It taught me a very important lesson about exposition; any writer will know how hard it is to introduce a fantasy world different to our own. The instinct is to pile the beginning of the story with exposition, usually by having one of the characters explain their culture and societal structure, but this can feel very forced. Another common method is to have a character unfamiliar with the world’s culture and history, and acts as a stand-in for the reader, allowing exposition to come across that way. In The Bone Ships this doesn’t happen much, and yet after a few chapters you already feel like part of the world (to quote Pirates of the Caribbean: “Part of the crew, part of the ship”).

But enough of me swooning over good writing; let’s talk plot! In the quote above, which you may have to scroll back to in order to refresh your memory, the ‘he’ is Joron Twiner, our main character. He is introduced to us as being in a drunk stupor, trying to forget the death of his father, and the ‘she’ in the quote is Lucky Meas, there to challenge him for command of the black ship Tide Child, which is a ship of the dead. It is where criminals are sent to serve out their sentence, to die serving the fleet, and Joron is shipwife (or captain) as a punishment. When Lucky Meas finds him, hiding from his ship and crew, drinking away the day, she takes his command, makes him deckkeeper (second in command), and starts reforming the disjointed and lazy crew of Tide Child. 

As you might expect, and I eagerly anticipated, there is a lovely development from disorganised group to fully functioning team that occurs over the course of the novel, and a bit of a found-family trope, which is one of my favourites. I guarantee you will love every character; they all feel so real, and though you only see the world through Joron’s eyes, there is depth to everyone he interacts with. That takes some skill to write. It’s quite unusual in current fantasy trends to have one point of view character for the entirety of the novel, and initially I kept expecting it to switch perspective, but I really enjoyed the focus of Joron’s point of view. It allows the reader to discover each new plot development as he did, and to see his character arc very clearly, as he comes to realise that the world he knows might be a bit different to what he was taught to believe.

I’ll end with a few things on world building. The Bone Ships has a very cool mythology that develops across the course of the book, and it is integral to their language and their geography. It feels real, and it sometimes even moves the plot forward. It also makes the world feel larger than it is. If you look at the map at the start of this post, you can see that there is not much to the world, but it is explained that the border of the map is also the border for its inhabitants; they are surrounded by constant storms, which explains the intensity of the two nations’ battle. They don’t have the option to pursue other routes to enrich themselves.

Another cool thing is the way the language is developed. Apart from the specific maritime jargon I’ve already mentioned, and how language incorporates religion, it also hints at dialects and history. For example, the sea dragon that sets off the plot proper is called an arakeesian, but is often referred to as a keyshan. If you say the two out loud you can see that one derives from the other, and is a realistic way in which words develop over time and across lands. The entire novel is full of these small details that make it believable and come alive beneath your fingers.

The Bone Ship is the first in a trilogy, and I eagerly await the next two books. It’s definitely going to go on the list of books that I reread frequently, and I hope that this review will persuade you to read it as well.

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