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.
I’ve been trying to think of a witty way to start this review. Maybe I could start with a sailing joke? Instead, I’m going to begin with a statement; The Bone Ships, by Robert Holstock Award winner RJ Barker, is utterly phenomenal!
Harkening back to the best stories of the naval genre, such as Master & Commander and the Hornblower novels, we follow the crew of the Tide Child, a ship crewed by criminals, the downtrodden and the unwanted, as they venture off into unknown and hostile seas in search of what could possibly be the last sea-dragon. We follow the events of the story through the eyes of Joron Twiner who, for me, is in the top tier of characters in modern fantasy. We join Joron at a low moment in his life, maybe even his lowest moment, as he lies in a hungover stupor under the blazing sun, just a short few moments before he has captaincy stripped from him. His arc throughout The Bone Ships is fully captivating. It’s his journey from coward, drunkard and on the brink of just giving it all up, to a brave and honourable leader that makes his experiences throughout so engaging. The supporting cast, who in other novels are often there to serve a purpose, feel fully formed and often have dialogue that can make me either laugh out loud (Black Orris and his fondness for “arse!” for example) to delivering moments that made me tear up, even if these moments are not between two human characters. Watching them change and grow, not just to the events that happen but also how they grow bonds with each other on this adventure, is surprising to both Joron and us.
“Are you sad, Joron Twiner?”
“Smell lonely. Not a good smell.”
“And you would know?”
We also closely follow Meas “Lucky Meas” Gilbryn, Shipwife ala Captain of Tide Child. Again, I’m happy to report that she is in the upper echelon of characters of the last 10 years, having some of the most fist-pumping, motivational and cheer-raising quotes of any book I have read to date. Her ability to rouse the crew before a battle (of which there are a number, all of which are Hollywood level spectacle in tension and grandeur) is masterful, and the way that RJ manages to make you feel the excitement and trepidation of Joron and the wider crew with her speeches is sheer brilliance.
The characters also help to add to fleshing out the world, which is colourful, vivid and deep without being overwhelming. In simple things, like certain turns of phrase, or how people react to some of the more stranger things of this water-logged world, Barker cleverly peppers details that help add context to character thoughts and decisions, and helps to build this living world that is The Hundred Isles and their generation-spanning nemesis, The Gaunt Islands.
The prose also deserves a special mention for being excellent. It is clear that RJ Barker is a master of the pen yet will still continue to improve throughout the series, which is exciting to know! With that said, just a side note; I read a first-print copy and there were a number of errors, usually about one per chapter/ten pages. Although it didn’t bother me, and I am sure it has been rectified in later editions or ebook updates, just be aware if this is something that can niggle at you. The plot also does take about 80 pages before it fully reveals itself so it does feel like treading water (haha) for a bit, but with characters this good it is easy to overlook this.
I also just want to take a minute to gush about the artwork featured in this book. It is BEAUTIFUL! From the cover illustration by Edward Bettison, to the design and lettering by Hannah Wood, to the map and chapter heading art design by Tom Parker, every drawing is exquisite, sharp and adds so much character to this novel. If ever there is a special collector’s edition of this book, I will be first in line, as it’s just so gorgeous!
What RJ Barker has done with this first book in The Tide Child trilogy is magnificent. He has created a fresh, breathing world, with appealing characters and hilarious, heart-pounding and heart-wrenching moments all in equal measure. I am keeping the next in the series, The Call of the Bone Ships, on my shelf until Book 3 arrives so then I can binge these back to back. But whenever my mind goes back to this novel, I immediately want to jump on board and set sail with Joron, Meas and all the crew!