TLDR: The strength of both books lies in their rejection of the grim dark. What begins as stories about ruthless societies captivated by killing dragons, emerges to focus on hope and how small groups of people can change the world for the better. Tropes about isolated heroes are subverted and there is a focus in both books about understanding the world around you. While neither book fully engages with the dragons, there is a promise of more in sequels.
A preface to these reviews, if I may, because here’s the thing about fantasy books written by male authors: I am a sceptic. I’m sure many readers will know what I mean when I say a childhood of reading ‘essential classics’ led to bewilderment at all the misogyny in the literature. This hasn’t entirely gone away, so I’m always cautious with new books. But both of these books were so damn enjoyable, with both male and female characters diverging from genre stereotypes, that I’m just full of positives at the current and future state of the genre.
(Reading time: 5 mins)
Book: The Bone Ships by R. J. Barker
Summary: For generations, the Hundred Isles have built their ships from the bones of ancient dragons to fight an endless war. 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.
Publisher: Little, Brown
I wasn’t at all sure what to expect from this book – the summary is a little confusing and the fantasy world is far more complex than it suggests. This story follows Joron Twiner, the captain of a Black Ship, where you only go if you are condemned to die. I loved this character.
Joron isn’t your typical fantasy character. For a start, he doesn’t like fighting. And he’s not good at it. The book begins by his place being usurped by Lucky Meas, who quickly takes control of his ship and, thereby, the plot. In this way, the narrator becomes not the leader of events, but a deputy, which is a refreshing take on the usual chosen-one narrative; but it also lets the reader unravel the mystery of the story along with him. Meas and Joron’s histories both unravel naturally as the plot does, which makes it easier to become absorbed into the world building.
I really enjoyed the character of Meas. I don’t usually like when books introduce a new character narrative for the sequel but in this case I’d definitely enjoy it.
Meas is the first-born daughter of the Queen of the Hundred Isles, a nation where power rests in the hands of woman who give birth to many children, something that displays their strength. Each first-born is given to the sea, i.e. sacrificed, as the kingdom’s whole reason for existing, it seems, is to make war with the Gaunt Islanders, portrayed as The Enemy. The best ships on either side are made of dragon bones, and for unexplained reasons, if you commit a particular type of crime, you get sentenced to a dragon bone ship painted black, where you stay until you die. Although it was an intriguing world, there is a lot left to be desired in the detail that’s missed out. You could argue this is because the story is told from Joron’s POV, but equally that the writing is hit-and-miss. Certainly in comparison to Blood of an Exile, and its developed belief systems, it can seem shoddy.
Added to this, I have to admit that the world building was a little confusing. Barker likes to adopt a random assortment of words to enhance the fantasy, but sometimes it just serves to mystify rather than other. You get to grips with it after a while, and the strangeness of the world is to its advantage, by the end, because it shows the book is something imaginative. The plot is pretty easy to figure out, but I personally never class that as a bad thing – I like knowing. On the other hand, the mysteries that remain are still unsolved by the end. Although this is disappointing, I figure it’s just prompting for you to pick up the sequel.
Book: Blood of an Exile by Brian Naslund
Summary: Bershad was supposed to die. He was given the harshest sentence: a command to slay dragons, so his death might serve the kingdom. Yet for some reason he never lost a fight and is now the most successful dragon-slayer in history.
The premise of this book is interesting. Bershad, the main character, is a former Lord sentenced to kill dragons, which is a promise of death as most dragon-slayers don’t long survive. Of course, Bershad is different. He’s so successful, the king who sentenced him offers him a different task instead, with the promise of his freedom if he completes it.
I’ve got to admit: I wasn’t expecting to like this book. It’s quite crass and continuously gory, two things I usually don’t go for. But I became fond very quickly. There are a few different characters who narrate this book, all with distinct character voices: Bershad, the dragon hunter; Ashlyn, princess of the kingdom; Vera, a deadly bodyguard; Jolan a physicians apprentice and Garret, an assassin. Bershad is the main character. His duty to hunt dragons is done reluctantly, and he’s a good antihero. Bershad’s reason for being able to survive dragon-slaying isn’t used to make him into an Epic Fantasy Hero. Instead he kinda reminds me of Wolverine!
This book employs a good mix of plot twists and expected developments. For example, part of the quest Bershad goes on is predictable, but there are also bits I wouldn’t have guessed. A similar element of mystery ends the book, and one of the main things I’m looking forward to in the sequel is the development of the princesses, as they were pretty atypical.
One of the things I liked most in this story was its cyclical nature. The Kingdom of Almira, where it begins, is repeatedly described as a kind of backwards place, with no infrastructure and villagers that make their own gods from mud. But this is not throwaway world building – it connects to the larger story. From the mud totems to the dragons overhead, there is a real love for the natural world that permeates throughout. Heroes and villains aside, this book’s true enemy is the loss of biodiversity; asserting the essential place of dragons in the world. It’s funny because of all the things writers use as fantasy inspo, I don’t think I’ve ever read that before.
Are they worth reading? Definitely; some new takes on dragons and fantasy here.
Which did you prefer? Due to my love of Age of Sail inspired stories, I’d have to say The Bone Ships, as I tore through that book.