Hello all and welcome to another edition of Your Mileage May Vary, the blog series where I talk about books I actually finished. This week I’ll be covering The Bone Ships by RJ Barker.
Before we get started, as always:
Some time ago, maybe a year or more, I thought to myself: I want to write a pirate book. I was wrong, of course. I don’t know anything about pirates or the nautical tradition, or what any such story I might tell in that vein would even be about. What I really wanted was to read a pirate book. And while The Bone Ships isn’t quite a pirate novel, it definitely scratched that itch.
So, in a nutshell, The Bone Ships is great. It boasts an exciting, unique fantasy setting that kind of reminded me of the video game Sea of Thieves which made it really fun to read. More than that the story felt, at least at first, like it was being told from the point of view of a character who was not… the main character. Or at least, not the hero of the story.
But before I go on, I need to talk about the first chapter and the greatest character reveal I think I have ever read. We open with a man in a ramshackle hut, drinking the painful memories of his past away, just like he has done every day for the last long while. He is the captain of a ship of the damned, crewed by criminals who have been condemned by society to serve in the fleet yet never truly be a part of it. Then a woman shows up to duel him for the right to captain the ship, a woman who is brave and strong, whereas he is cowardly and weak. As such, the man is summarily defeated, yet invited to stay on as first mate. It is at this point that we learn his name is Joron, and that he is nineteen years old.
I wish I could describe to you how much this floored me. Everything about those opening pages indicated a man of some many years, perhaps in his fifties. I mean, an alcoholic who captains a ship of the damned? Of course we eventually learn how a man, barely more than a boy, came to be in that position, but it was framed so perfectly that it literally stunned me when the truth came out. RJ Barker is known for writing excellent characters, and though some others might gripe that The Bone Ships was not his strongest character work, I completely disagree. The opening scene was a perfect illustration of Barker’s mastery of character. He knew exactly what he was doing and I fell for it, hook, line, and sinker (get it, cause this is a boat story? Okay I’ll shut up now). I honestly wish I could mind wipe myself so I could go back and relive it. It was that good. Phew.
Alright, moving on. As I mentioned, one of the greatest things about The Bone Ships is how it felt like Joron wasn’t who the story was about. That honor, of course, belonged to Lucky Meas, the woman who demoted Joron yet did not kill him, took over his ship of criminals, and went on to irrevocably change the whole course (okay, seriously I’ll stop) of Joron’s life. I loved this about the story telling. Joron himself, at least in the first half of the book, was not a likeable character. Definitely not a likeable POV character. He is, as we are reminded repeatedly throughout the book (I would even go as far to say ad nauseam), a coward. He is weak, petty, bitter at the world yet weirdly defensive of its brutal customs, and, allow me to reiterate, afraid of everything. Despite being chosen as his ship’s “shipwife” (The Bone Ship’s custom terminology for captain) because of his weakness and exploitability, he resents Meas for taking the title from him and plans to revenge himself upon her, even after she gives him a position of authority and respect on her ship and goes so far as to teach him how to use it.
Again, this was a masterful display of Barker’s understanding of how to write people. He gave us a POV character who was deathly afraid of his quest and resisted it continually, a character who wasn’t even the most important person in his own story, without ever sacrificing the integrity of the storytelling itself. The plot was still exceedingly compelling, even when being given to us by someone so, well, pathetic. Of course, as the novel wears on, Joron grows as a person and a seafarer, becomes more like the character we all want him to be, all the way up to the end when he reflects back on his plans to betray Meas and laughs at how stupid he had been then, just a mere few months previous.
I haven’t even talked about the plot yet, so real quickly: in a world known as the Shattered Archipelago, two tribes war for dominance of the seas using ships made of sea-dragon bones (because apparently wood doesn’t exist?). Some many years ago the sea-dragons were hunted to extinction, leaving the tribes to continually recycle what few bones are left until almost none remain. Upon the sighting of another sea-dragon, the first in a long ass time, a small faction of sea captains and other interested parties vow to protect it on its journey through the Archipelago so that its bones cannot be used to perpetuate the barbaric war that has raged since time began. Obviously, one of these sea captains is Meas.
Truth be told, when this plot about the sea-dragon (arakeesian, keyshan, wakewyrm, among other names) was introduced around the 35% mark, I wasn’t that excited about it. True, the story up until that point was kind of meandering but I actually sort of liked it? I was interested to see how Meas was going to turn her ragtag criminal crew into formidable members of the fleet, and thought we were going to embark on an adventure where she saves the Hundred Isles from themselves, even when she has been cast out from the place of honor she previously held. And while we did get that, after a fashion, it just took a different color than I expected and I wasn’t too jazzed for it at first. That being said, the plot grew on me. Not because it became suddenly more interesting, but because of Joron’s evolution as a person, because of the expansion of the cast, and because of the greater attention spent on how the ship itself ran.
Alright, as always, I gotta nitpick one thing. Joron’s friendship with Dinyl, was, uh, pointless. It was added way, way too late to the plot and served no purpose whatsoever. Dinyl’s ending was never going to be any different, regardless of his relationship with Joron, and so it added no shock/emotional value at all to the conclusion. Now, I will, perhaps, revisit that opinion if the two become lovers in the later installments like I suspect they might, but otherwise I was extremely meh about that subplot. Also, I sort of wish “arakeesian” was actually “arkeesian.” The extra A doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as well, and, yeah, alright now I’m being ridiculous.
All told, The Bone Ships is an excellent marriage of setting, plot, and character. It is full of compelling people, monsters from the deep, and plenty of fantasy trappings to make my heart sing. It was the magic nautical story I never knew I always wanted.
Final rating for The Bone Ships: 4.5 out of 5 miles.
For only the second time this year, I managed to finish two books in a row! Can I make it three? Looking forward to finding out.
Until next time my friends, may your writing be plenty and your struggles be few.