Do you like dragons? Do you like swashbuckling adventures? Do you like nautical terms and big beautiful ships? Do you like quirky crews of misfits learning to work together? Do you like detailed world-building and island nations with rich cultures? Do you like super cool hats? If you answered yes to any of the above, RJ Barker’s The Bone Ships might be the next book for you. Fresh off the finish of his assassin-centric Wounded Kingdom series, Barker has launched a new fantasy series about a crew of condemned who are given one final suicide mission to save their country. However, these sailors are anything but, and if they are going to stand a chance they will need to get in ship-shape quickly.
The Bone Ships takes place in a large archipelago, called The Hundred Isles, and the two nations that reside inside of it. Being an island nation, the primary form of warfare is nautical– waged in giant ships made of the bones of sea dragons. Although these ships are incredibly powerful, especially compared to those made of lesser material, the sea dragons have been hunted to extinction so their construction is finite. Without the ability to construct new ships, open warfare between the various islands grinds to a halt as the various groups fear losing their precious ships. However, a hundred years after the final sea dragon was presumed dead, an enormous shape is spotted on the ancestral migratory path of the sea dragons. It seems the dragons aren’t as dead as everyone suspected. Now, with a literal floating treasure trove of war resources on the horizon, The Hundred Isles enters a race to be the first to find, kill, and harvest this beautiful sea creature. Every boat on the sea is after this magical prize. Well, all except one – the Black Ship captained by Lucky Maes who sees an opportunity to end a generational conflict. As the captain of a Black Ship, a bone vessel that has decayed to the point of obsoletion and crewed by criminals, Maes will set out to protect, not hunt, this final dragon. If she can keep it alive and out of the hands of any one nation, she might be able to keep war from reigniting.
Despite my plot summary above, our protagonist in the book is not actually the aforementioned Lucky Maes. Instead, we get to witness the story from her first mate, Joron Twinner. Joron provides an interesting lens from which to experience the story. He starts as a sad sack of worthless poo, and we get to watch as Lucky Maes slowly whips him into a capable and inspiring leader over the course of the book. It is a time old trope that I am not even slightly tired of, and Barker nails the execution pretty fantastically. Once the story hits a “training montage” of Maes teaching the crew of the Black Ship, called The Tide Child, how to work together, you won’t be able to put it down. Unfortunately, the first part of the book drags like a corpse behind a carriage. Despite the worldbuilding being excellent overall, the intro to the book involves a ton of exposition just being dropped on you like a pile of bricks. Captain Maes also feels uncharacteristically shitty as a person (compared to her persona in the book as a whole) in this first bit. She is intensely unlikable, and although I knew she was going to make a turn towards lovable at some point, I almost put the book down.
Although I have some issues with the delivery methods, I am absolutely in love with the world of The Hundred Isles. Sometimes small pieces of the worldbuilding didn’t make sense to me, like I didn’t really get what the purpose of the Black Ships was. However, for the most part, both the larger worldbuilding concepts and the smaller details that support them are delightful. For example, there is some genetic profiling that proliferates the islands as people try to breed the best sailors. Status is conferred to women based on how many children they have birthed, and status is conferred to men based on their physical might and stature, to pass on the best genes. Men must compete to be placed into the slave, warrior, or breeder casts. Although it is fairly bleak and upsetting for both genders, Barker does an impressive job making it feel ‘right’ in the island setting, and that this is a culture that has evolved out of necessity instead of a luxury. BUT, my favorite little detail about this whole situation is what I will forever call the ‘penis pants’ that the highest cast of men wear to show off their fertility and prowess. They are essentially glorified leggings with hundreds of bedazzled arrows pointing to their dick to objectify the crap out of the guys, and I think the pants are amazing. You cannot convince me that they aren’t hilarious.
Yet, while the book can be funny and fun, it also has a grimdark streak that might not be to everyone’s taste. The magic and lore of the world are original but terrifying. Many of the bone ships have ‘ghost lights’ that hover above the decks protecting the vessels. These lights are made by smashing newborn babies, prisoners, and captives against the hull until they die and are absorbed by the bones. Fun. There are also these incredible bird people who can control the wind (which is invaluable on a sailboat) at enormous cost to their personal health. They often end up accidentally killing themselves while trying to force the wind to help their ships. These are just a few of the magics and creatures that Barker shows you in the book, many of which mesmerize and horrify. All of these things have a high level of intensity thanks to Barker’s excellent prose. He has a way of writing with a sense of momentousness that makes every action feel intense and gritty. When he describes sailors loading the ships’ bows, or seeing the sea dragon for the first time, you get these small moments of genuine awe through his writing. He has evocative prose that is an absolute joy to read.
While Joron is our sole lead, the book has an eclectic and dysfunctional cast of misfits that will warm your heart. The Tide Child is a big ship and accordingly has a very large group of people to crew him. Barker introduces you to what feels like fifty individual crew members, makes you start to love them, and then sends them into an unwinnable fight with zero plot armor. You learn pretty quickly that characters you like are not going to make it to the end of the book, and it adds a level of tension to the plot, which I really appreciated. Several of the cast have satisfying character arcs, and if watching people improve is your jam, then this book will hit all the right buttons.
The Bone Ships stands out as one of the most memorable, tense, and majestic reads I have had this year. If it were not for its painfully slow opening, I would likely have given it a perfect score. There is a beautiful synergy of old tropes and new ideas coexisting in this novel that spoke to me on several levels. This book was one of the only escort quests I have ever enjoyed and it was a privilege to watch Lucky Maes forge an incredible crew from the ashes of failure. Do yourself a favor and give The Bone Ships a read.
Rating: The Bone Ships – 9.0/10