Fiction Reviews

The Bone Ships Wake

(2021) R. J. Barker, Orbit, £9.99, pbk, 547pp, ISBN 978-0-356-51186-3


The sea dragons are returning… and Joron's dreams of freedom lie shattered. His shipwife is gone and all he has left is revenges. Leading the Black Fleet, he knows his time is limited. His fleet is shrinking and Keyshan's rot is running through his body. He runs from a prophecy that says that he and the avian sorcerer, the Windseer, will end the entire world. But the sea dragons are returning, and if you can have one miracle, who's to say that there cannot be another?

First we had The Bone Ships, then we had Call of the Bone Ships and now we have the last part of 'The Tide Child' trilogy with The Bone Ships Wake – I wonder, could that be a reference to being in the wake of a ship, or something waking up, perhaps the sea dragons? Well, there’s only one way to find out. This third novel is told in three parts – The Black Pirate, The Shipwife, and The Wake of Ships, plus an epilogue and an afterword by Barker.

In this edition we also get a couple of extras which include some information about Barker and an extract from the novel, “The Blood Coast” by Mike Brooks. It should also be said that each chapter starts with a little black and white illustration by Tom Parker. Finally, hats off to Barker for telling his tale over 57 chapters, some with brilliant titles like “The Terrible Here and the Terrible Now”, which is quickly followed by “The Terrible Now and the Terrible Here”, and “The Tying of the Knot”, which comes before “The Tightening of the Noose”, and those are just some examples of Barker’s chapter naming prowess.

Not that the rest of his writing is too shabby as he continues a story set in a unique fantasy world with great characters, world-building, great pacing, set pieces, sea battles, highs and lows, violent action and peaceful passages which highlight the poet in Barker’s prose. Culture, terminology, dialogue, and understanding of a sea-faring world, it’s all here, a gift from Barker to his readers as we play cat and mouse on the seas, or a deadly chess game on the waves comprising move and countermove, of feign and bluff, and outright suicidal courage as ships made from dragon bones ram each other.

This is a fitting end to the series as events and the journeys of the major characters (and minor ones too who step into the limelight) come to a conclusion, and not all endings will be happy ones, but they feel appropriate and true. For readers of the series, if you thought book two was tough on you and the major characters, you ain’t seen nothing yet. A year has passed since Meas surrendered herself in order to save the Blackships while Joron and the Black Fleet need her, but rescuing her will be no easy task.

Meas’ second in command, Joron Twiner, is a character that has grown through the series from being a hothead to growing from being broken and having to reassemble the pieces of his own life to become The Black Pirate and leader of the Black Fleet. His journey and quest in this book puts him in centre-stage to the detriment of Meas who has been broken and laments all she has lost, but she can’t stay broken for long as Joron needs her, which means setting her free, and going on the run, while trying to bring some justice and change to the world. He has to do this because time is running out to make a difference. His is losing ships and his body is being assaulted by Keyshan’s Rot which will drive him mad before it kills him. There’s a lot to be done as the enemy fleet closes in, not to forget the rise of the Keyshans from the depths and some intrigue involving those bird-like sorcerers known as the Guillame added into the mix. A great ending, to a pretty unique series. Recommended.

Ian Hunter


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