The Bone Ships by RJ Barker

The Bone Ships by RJ Barker

Series: Tide Child #1Rating: 4.5/5
Date of Publishing: September 24th 2019Genre: fantasy, nautical fantasy
Publisher: Orbit / Hatchetter Audio UKAvailable: Amazon, Barnes & Noble
Length: 17h 2mAuthor’s website:


A brilliantly imagined saga of honor, glory, and warfare, The Bone Ships is the epic launch of a new fantasy from David Gemmell Award-nominated RJ Barker.

Two nations at war. A prize beyond compare.

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.

Personal notes

I’ve got an ARC through Netgalley back in the summer, but as I failed to read it in time, and seemed like I couldn’t fit it in the schedule anyway, I decided to try the audiobook instead.

Song of the Book

I really had no idea what song I would pick until the last minute. When I took up my mp3 player to get a look at my collection, there was a Thrice song on the screen and I was like “Huh, okay, yeah, Thrice definitely would work with this book.” I was thorn between Only Us and Blood on Blood, but decided on the first in the end. It works well, if I think about the crew of the Tide Child, or if I think about the rivalry between the Hundred Isles and the Gaunt Islands.

Finally when will it be enough
To find there’s no them
There is only us
There’s only us


The Bone Ships is the first book I’ve read from RJ Barker, so I didn’t have too many expectations going in. Actually, my expectations were very low indeed, because I was second guessing myself whether it was a good idea to request a copy. I mean, I always knew nautical fiction wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, but in recent months I learned that I’m really not a fan of the subgenre. That being said, The Bone Ships was nothing I feared it would be and was much more than I ever expected.

I have a bit of love-hate relationship with audibooks as they make it easier to devour a book while doing something else, but on the other hand, it’s easy to miss the nuances, and the details of the world building. Also a lot depends on the narrator, the way they deliver a story. It can put you off entirely or get you totally enthralled. While I listened to Jude Owusu‘s incredible voice, I wondered whether I would have loved The Bone Ships as much as I did if I read it instead. I probably would, but one thing’s for sure: you really have to try the audio book, because as limited as my experiences are with audio books, none other made me feel like Jude Owusu managed to. But then, it takes two to waltz as they say, and without Barker’s exquisite writing the magic wouldn’t have worked quite as well.

The Hundred Isles is not a place you’d call happy or peaceful or a paradise on Earth for that matter. It has an interesting society structure – people’s place in it is based on their birth: whether they were born healthy, or if their mother survived. The more healthy children a woman gives birth to, the higher her respect is. The Thirteenborn is on the top of the ladder who practically rules the Hundred Isles and its fleet. The most valuable thing on the isles is arakeesian bone – arakeesians are something you’d call a sea dragons, who once filled the seas, but now they were pretty much extinct. Their bones are used to build ships, hence they called bone ships. It is usually an honor to serve on a ship like that – unless we are talking about a black bone ship, in which case it’s more of a condemning. Those who commit a crime are sent to serve on one of these ships until they die – either in raid, or from alcohol poisoning. Once someone is marked by a black band, there is no way back.

Joron is determined to drink away his days and not to care much about Tide Child – a black ship he is the captain (or as they called in this world: shipwife) of, until Meas Gilbryn challenges him and takes charge. Joron soon enough finds himself on an adventure which will make him question everything he knew about people, the world and even himself.

We read about the events through Joron’s eyes, which is a really interesting choice of POV, as he is not the hero of the story. Not in the common meaning of the word anyway. Meas is the fearless leader, the one who always knows what to do, always has a plan and has a charisma that makes people respect and obey her. Something that Joron lacks. You’d expect her to be the focus of the book, the main POV character – and still, Barker is not one to go for conventions and the expected way. By choosing Joron as his MC, he lets us see Meas from a different light – she is still the hero, but we actually get to see WHY from an unbiased POV while we can also witness the changes in Joron’s character the more time they spend together. He gains self-confidence, finds his own voice, challenges himself and his views, and makes friends, if unusual ones.

My most favourite character is probably the Gullaime, a birdlike creature which can command the winds, and are the most useful member of any crew. But they are also feared and respected. Joron, to his disbelief somehow finds a way to make him help them on their journey and earning his respect he also earns his friendship. As much as you can call that a friendship anyway.

The Bone Ships is definitely a character driven nautical fantasy, and Barker did fill this world with intriguing characters from the arakeesian and the gullaime, through the crew members to Meas and Joron. And though journey takes them from the Hundred Isles to the far North through many dangers, there are a surprisingly few action scenes – or at least what I’d call an action scene. There are fights, yes, but they are not drawn out and don’t take up endless pages. And we are definitely not drowned in nautical jargon – that’s partly because Barker created his own terminology which works really well. It’s not a book I’d call fast paced necessarily, but I also wouldn’t say it’s dragging. I think the best way to make a nautical fantasy work – for me at least – is to create memorable characters and make the book depend on their interaction for the most part, because, well, they are stuck together on a ship for the majority of the time. Barker did nail that perfectly and I was so wrapped up in the way he waved the story together that I forgot to be bored. The plot itself is not that complex, or there aren’t many unexpected twists, but I really didn’t care about that. I was more invested in the characters and in finding out how their quest will work out. In fact, I’m so invested, that I can’t wait to read about what’s in store for the crew of the Tide Child next. I’m pretty sure there’ll be consequences to some of their actions, and not everyone will be happy how they handled their side of the bargain.

If I have to complain, I probably would have liked to learn a bit more about how the society works and about the Hag, the Maiden and the Mother. But as I said, I’m pretty sure a few details flew over my head due to listening to the audio book version.

The Bone Ships is the nautical fantasy I didn’t know I needed in my life. I loved the characters who weren’t just “good” or “bad”, I loved the different creatures that made this world so vivid and mysterious, I loved how Jude Owusu made me feel and react to his reading. If you are looking for a character-driven fantasy, which is not filled with fighting scenes but focuses more on exploring human nature, then look no further. I’m pretty sure the Tide Child and the arakeesian would be grateful for the company of another adventurer.