TLDR: A really fun world, with sea dragons as legendary to the characters as us, and interesting characters to boot, with the caveat that all of them have been sentenced to death. This should perhaps tell the tale of the story, full of characters dying off, violence on all sides of any conflict and a little doomsday prophecy, for added spice! However, the characters are really fun, even if they are at danger of dying off at any point…
The Bone Ships, Call of the Bone Ships, The Bone Ship’s Wake by R.J. Barker
Synopsis (for book 1): For generations, the Hundred Isles have built their ships from the bones of ancient dragons to fight an endless war. The dragons disappeared, but the battles for supremacy persisted.
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. Because whoever catches it will win not only glory, but the war.
Publisher: Little, Brown
(Reading time: 3 mins)
The first book in this series follows Joron Twiner, who has his dubious captaincy of a black ship called Tide Child taken away from him by a woman named Meas Gilbryn. She is the firstborn daughter of the leader of the Hundred Isles, the scattered collection of islands where the two are from, and has only recently been sentenced to a black ship, not even her birth saving her.
All of the fastest ships in the Hundred Isles are made from the skeletons of sea dragons, creatures which have long ago died out. This helps the Hundred Isles continue their long-held enmity with the Gaunt Islanders, who occupy the other side of the archipelago. Both nations hate each other: they kidnap each others’ children as sacrifices for the ships, they raid each other’s towns and fight in sea battles. Both sides also have black ships: where the bones of the ship are painted black, and populated by people who are, for whatever crime, condemned to the ship, where they cannot leave except for death.
If it sounds a grim setting, it is. The world setup here is a violent, cruel place, where anybody with some disability is shunned as ‘berncast’ and thus never able to rise up the ranks of society. Most of these people are also on the black ships, and as the trilogy progresses, characters begin to slowly understand that the society the powerful people of the Hundred Isles have created is not in fact fair or desirable, and on the Tide Child, they begin to yearn for something more.
From the very first book, it is clear there’s a lot of potential, and not only because there are potentially sea dragons involved. Joron is a likeable character, kind as much as he can be, not at all overpowered (and in fact, quite a poor sailor), but with a peculiar attachment to the sea through song. The mystery of his past, and why he has been condemned to a black ship, unfolds satisfyingly slowly, as does Meas Gilbryn’s story. The rest of the cast has a nice array of character types, ensuring a very ‘found family’ atmosphere. There is also a curious, avian-type creature, the Guillaime, who can control the wind and look, who doesn’t love the powerful outcast trope?
The plot in book one is slow to start, but I think this is done well. It means the world building unravels alongside the plot, and rather than a large amount of exposition in the beginning, you learn about everything as you go. For example, the politics of the Hundred Isles is learned when the ship returns to the ruling island, along with characters that explain the mystery of Joron’s crime, and what exactly Meas Gilbryn’s mission unto herself is.
One thing to remark on such a grim world and enjoyable characters is that the author has no qualm about killing them off. It is understandable in the style of writing, and I suppose it does keep you on the edge of your seat! If you hate that, however, this trilogy probably isn’t for you.
As I am reviewing these books as a trilogy, I have to say I’m not entirely convinced by the conclusion. There’s a whole lot of ambition, I think, in the myth of the world presented here, however I did not find it was paced very well. There is too much build-up – for example, about the lost sea dragons, about their effect on the rest of the world – and it culminates solely in the latter half of the final book. This is also so with the mystery of Meas Gilbryn’s past, and information about the Guillaime. It felt a little like the author held almost all his cards close to his chest and released them at the end for an impactful conclusion, but instead it comes across rushed and lacklustre.
For anyone who has read the author’s works before, I don’t think this is new. In my review of the Wounded Kingdom Trilogy, I found the exact same plot pattern. And while I enjoyed both series enough to speed-read three books, I did think the ending was disappointing both times.
On a positive note – the second book is very fun. There’s no second book syndrome here, and it is part of why the series is so enjoyable, because the setup in book one leads to quite an action-packed second book. Neither are there many new characters introduced after the first book, so it does feel like one long voyage, if we’re sticking to sea terms.
Overall, I would recommend the series just for the first book and the world created here – anything with dragons suits me! However, if you’re big on satisfying conclusions, I don’t think this one was.
Similar to: The Wounded Kingdom trilogy, naturally, but otherwise sea dragons are a rather rare story plot, I think!