The Bone Ships by R.J. Barker – Review

Cover- The Bone Ships

Published: September 24, 2019

Publisher: Orbit Books

Series: The Tide Child #1

Genre: Fantasy

Pages: 512 (Paperback)

My Rating: 5.0/5.0

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.


A brilliantly imagined saga of honor, glory, and warfare, The Bone Ships is the epic launch of a new fantasy from David Gemmell Award-nominated RJ Barker.

Two nations at war. A prize beyond compare.

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.

A new RJ Barker series was HOT NEWS to much of the fantasy community earlier this year and I was just one of many clamoring to get my hands on a copy. The Bone Ships takes place in a world where two island nations have been at war for generations, battling with their ships made of sea dragon bone. Now their ships are beginning to suffer and sea dragons haven’t been seen in years… until one is spotted and The Tide Child is sent on a secret mission to track it down. The thing is, this ship is full of those condemned to die in the war. It’s a black ship of bone and the crew is bad, even by the usual standard, and the new captain is upsetting their lackadaisical existence. 

 The story is told from the point of view of Joron Twiner, who a mere handful of pages in, gets ousted from his ill begotten captaincy by the infamous Lucky Meas. Meas is the daughter of what amounts to the Queen and she has for some unknown reason been sentenced to the black ships. I quickly grew to like her, despite seeing her through Joron’s eyes (he was a mite bit resentful, you see). Meas is tough and competent and it is shown to the reader than constantly being told to you which I much appreciate. It also quickly becomes apparent that Meas has a mission of her own and being sent to the black ships is definitely not the end of things. Joron is made first mate and he does harbor some ill feelings at first and I was a little nervous about how certain initial interactions would work out – would he be traitorous or rather, mutinous?

The world of The Bone Ships is incredibly cool and well detailed. The Hundred Isles are Nordic in flavor and are a matriarchal society where one’s position is determined by how successful the mother was at birthing whole, well formed children. The Thirteenbern (basically the queen) is a woman who bore thirteen healthy children, which I’m assuming is the most anyone in the Hundred Isles has borne.Those whose mothers died in birthing are of a lower status, and the malformed who live are the artisans of the city. The whole societal thing is quite interesting and there’s a bit more to it than what I’ve described here. Of course, the generations long war between the Hundred Islanders and their nemesis the Gaunt Islanders requires vast numbers of hale young men and women to fight and sail and also ships. Always the ships, made of the bones of the arakeesians which are gigantic sea dragons. The ships are beyond value and both sides have no new material for more ships, they are just capturing or re-purposing ships and their lifestyle cannot be sustained as such. The sighting of an arakeesian is momentous and Meas and Joron Twiner set off with their unwieldy crew to follow it northward, supposedly to kill it and harvest it for the Hundred Islanders so that advantage over their enemies may be gained.

I think you can begin to see how fascinating this book truly is and why you may just want to run out and buy it. I know, I felt much the same way when I merely read the synopsis. The Bone Ships was a top notch, swashbuckling read and I can’t recommend it enough. Joron Twiner is an unlikely main character in that he is plagued by self doubt and a lack of confidence that is most unusual in your run of the mill fantasy hero. I wouldn’t even say he’s entirely a hero, though not quite an anti-hero either. The supporting cast is a rough group, though there are some real gems and honestly almost every one of the characters is polished up a bit by the end of the book. I’m genuinely in awe of how much meaningful character growth was packed into a book where every character has a death sentence hanging over their head. And lest I fail to mention it, the  gullaime, which is essentially a magical bird-man that channels wind magic to move the ship, was a uniquely intriguing part of the world. This will stand out as one of the highlights of my 2019 reading list for sure!

10 thoughts on “The Bone Ships by R.J. Barker – Review

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