|Illustration by Edward Bettison|
Design & lettering by
Orbit, 26 November 2020
Available as: PB, 488pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy provided by publisher
I'm grateful to Nazia at Orbit for a free advance copy of Call of the Bone Ships to consider for review.
Call of the Bone Ships takes us back to Barker's fantasy archipelago, divided into two warring nations - the Hundred Isles and the Gaunt Islands. In the previous book we saw Joron Twiner, a desperate drunk heading to the bad, rescued by Shipwife "Lucky" Meas Gilbryn together with the ship of which he had titular command, Tide Child. It was a ship of convicts, of outcasts, but Meas built it and them into a potent element of the Fleet - for her own purposes, revealed at the end of the book.
In Call of the Bone Ships, we see the consequences. No longer a loyal ship of the Fleet, Tide Child makes a shocking discovery which reveals a vile trade apparently flourishing under the eyes of Meas's estranged mother, who rules the Hundred Isles. Investigating, and seeking to end, it sets Meas up for a conflict with the entire Fleet and makes her and her crew the enemy of the Hundred Isles.
I'm being circumspect about just what happens here and (I hope) not spoiling the first book for any reader who hasn't opened it yet (my advice: you must read it, and quickly). The plot here is action-filled, full of twists ands turns, feats of arms and rending loss, and you don't want to know the details in advance because Barker's telling of them is superb and frequently shocking. Like its forerunner, Call of the Bone Ships scratches all the same itches as CS Forester or Patrick O'Brian except in a fantasy world with magic, great sea beasts called Arakeesians and a matriarchal society. There is shattering, sudden combat. There is the unease of a sailor, forced to trust to the land. There is the fellowship and web of relationships aboard ship. Above all there is the restless, heaving sea.
But - and because this is an RJ Barker book I was expecting this - there is more. A story filled with scrapes and chases would be fun, but Barker's fiction has heart besides. In the first book we saw Joron grow and come into his own as a sailor and as a human. We saw him discover a strange gift - the ability to call the Arakeesian. We saw him make friends, and enemies.
Here, every scrap of what Joron became is put to work, is tested, against enormous odds. His trust in Meas (and hers in him), his bond with his crew, his friendship with the strange creature the Gullaime. (Note to author: can we have a series of gullaime spinoff stories please? I just loved its rudeness, its self-possession and its liking for colourful scraps and bric-a-brac). Joron is no longer learning to be who he is, rather he's learning what that person can do, and working out what they should do. And what price he's prepared to pay for that, what he must give up.
In some respects it is a very dark book indeed. The plot which the crew of Tide Child confront is bad enough, but there are also woeful discoveries about the history of Barker's world, about how the Arakeesians were hunted, discoveries that taint all with an age old guilt. And there is a threat in the future too which no doubt we'll hear more of in the next book. Joron has many low moments - Barker doesn't spare his reader and there were many occasions reading this book that I felt, no, not that, don't do that. AND RJ ALWAYS DOES IT! However, the darkness is never all there is. There is trust and loyalty. There is friendship. There are songs - Barker's sea shanties roll in with the tang of salt and carry the rhythms of waves and tides. There is terrific, rich worldbuilding, glorious passages of prose and deep, well realised characters at every hand.
I could write that this book blew me away, and that's true, but I have to add, yes, it blew me away and dropped me in the heaving sea, where my flesh was gnawed by sea beasts, it cast my bones on a far shore to be ground by the tides. It is a book of combat and action, yes, but beneath it is a book of deep, deep feelings.
If you'd asked me before I read this I would have said it would be hard for Barker to match, let alone surpass, The Bone Ships, yet here we are, I think he has. Both books are superb, but this one - well, this one just flies. It's just superb writing, and feels so real, so human and moving.
I am, as you may have worked out, strongly recommending this one.
For more information about Call of the Bone Ships, see the publisher's website here.