Fiction Reviews

Call of the Bone Ships

(2020) R. J. Barker, Orbit, £8.99, pbk, iix + 491pp, ISBN 978-0-356-51184-9


Fantasy world-building can be a tricky business. Some just take a well-known historical period and add a fantastical element – think War of the Roses with dragons! Others prefer to construct their own world from scratch and run the risk of losing the reader through unfamiliarity. R. J. Barker walks that fine line in his ‘Bone Ships’ trilogy, setting his swashbuckling fantasy in a nightmarish world of sea monsters and multiple-eyed dragons, where the vegetation – ‘gion’ and ‘varisk’ – rots en masse during the ‘dying season’ and bird-like creatures – the ‘gullaime’ – can magically control the wind. Which is a handy device to mitigate the vagaries of the weather in a mostly maritime fantasy. The ships themselves are built from old dragon bones, with decks of slate (not perhaps the best material given the amount of water sloshing about!) and in a nice gender-twist are described as ‘he’ with their captains referred to as ‘Shipwives’.

Call of the Bone Ships continues the tale of one of the most famous of such shipwives, Lucky Meas Gilbryn, told (mostly) from the perspective of her second-in-command, or Deckkeeper, Joron Twiner. Although the characters and context are the same, with war on-going between the Hundred Isles and the Gaunt Islands, there is no direct continuation of the story from The Bone Ships, so you can drop pretty much straight into this book without having read its predecessor. The story begins with a fearsome storm and the dramatic rescue of another boneship, about to be broken on the rocks. Despite their gratitude, the crew and Shipwife of the rescued ship are suspiciously reluctant to let Meas and Joron on board – and with good reason, as it turns out the cargo is human, held under appalling conditions. There are obvious echoes of the slave trade here and it is Meas’s determination to save as many of such people as she can from a dreadful fate that drives the plot forward. Having said that, the focus remains on Joron and the losses, both physical and otherwise, that he is prepared to endure in order to follow Meas. At times his continuing self-doubt becomes a little wearisome and more than once I half-expected her to slap him round the face and shout, ‘Pull yourself together man!’

This was particularly so when he needs to use the mysterious ‘calling’ power he possesses in order to save his shipmates, a power that is obviously linked to that of the gullaime. This remains one of the more intriguing threads of the series as does the gullaime’s relationship with others of its kind. There are strong hints that both the avian magician and Joron are more than what they seem and the dramatic appearance of another of the sea-dragons confirms as much. However, the character development here seems more drawn out than it perhaps needs to be and quite a few passages detailing his inner turmoil become a little repetitive.

Where Barker excels is in the descriptions of battles, both against the storms and Meas’s enemies. When it comes to the former, you really feel as if lashed by the wind and rain, clinging to a rope as the boneship plunges down the side of a massive wave. As for the latter, in the time-honoured tradition of grimdark fantasy, not only is there plenty of blood and giblets scattered about, but ‘good guys’ are unexpectedly slaughtered, while erstwhile baddies reveal another side to their character. There is enough of this to relieve the tedium when the book occasionally seems becalmed, just like the boneship itself at one point.

Having said that, things definitely start to ramp up as the plot moves towards the finale, and the novel ends with a twist that, although not entirely surprising by the time you get to it, leaves you fired up for the final instalment recently published as The Bone Ship’s Wake. And it goes without saying that any book featuring a bird named ‘Black Orris’ whose main function is to turn up at opportune moments and shout ‘Arse’ has to be worth reading!

Steven French


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