As a preteen, I wanted to love movies like Pirates of the Caribbean. I loved tall tales of swashbuckling pirates and daring adventures on the high seas, but the movies didn’t live up to what I thought a sea adventure should or could be. Maybe it was the language, or maybe it was how painfully un-magical the movies were. Whatever the case, they just never clicked. But The Bone Ships, the first book in R.J. Barker’s Tide Child trilogy, is everything I wished those movies of the sea had been and much, much more. Simultaneously gritty and full of a sense of wonder, The Bone Ships is the perfect adventure for anyone who’s ever had dreams of the sea—or of dragons.
The endless war between the Hundred Isles and the Gaunt Islands was built on the bones of dragons. When those dragons disappeared, the island nations recycled what they could, each generation using the scavenged parts of the dragon-bone ships of the warriors who came before. The war went on, each generation’s ships smaller than the last. As their ships weakened and rotted, the war diminished to raids meant to steal ships and children. But the uneasy equilibrium will soon end: The first dragon in hundreds of years has been sighted. Lucky Meas and her ragtag crew of the condemned are determined to find it first and change the course of the war, but they aren’t the only ones desperate to find and claim the creature as their own.
One of the most interesting things about The Bone Ships is our perspective into its world. Joron Twiner, our point of view character, is no hero. He is cowardly and prideful. He’s incompetent and haunted by his past. It is clear even from the very first pages of The Bone Ships that if we are to have a traditional hero, it will be the woman who has taken Joron’s ship, Gilbryn “Lucky” Meas. Meas’ knack for driving her crew to success against all odds might feel cheap if she were our window into this world, as her ability to lead others is almost otherworldly. But because we see Meas through Joron’s eyes, we are only seeing Meas as her crew sees her: a great captain who causes remarkable changes in others, including Joron himself.
The world we see through Joron’s eyes is alien, from the little details (ships are referred to as “he” rather than “she”) to the big ones (normalized infant blood sacrifice). But as strange as these details sometimes are, there’s something about Barker’s style that makes them seem utterly natural. In many ways The Bone Ships reads not as a fantasy, but almost like a recent historical fiction, lending it an air of verisimilitude that many fantasy books lack. The narrator assumes that readers know the Hundred Isles as well as its characters do. That assumption can sometimes be confusing—the traditions, superstitions and even the language of the denizens of the Tide Child are as numerous as they are complicated—but this approach is also necessary. While a Tolkienesque explanation of the history of everything might have simplified the book, it would have been for the worse rather than for the better.
Appealing to the adventurer in all of us, The Bone Ships is an excellent book for any reader in search of a fantastical journey.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our Q&A with R.J. Barker about The Bone Ships.