A thrilling bit of high seas fantasy that sets the stage for what is doubtless to be a riveting trilogy from a tremendously talented and imaginative mind.
Being the first installment in a new trilogy, The Bone Ships devotes the majority of its first half to world building. And given the utterly alien (compared to our own) nature of Barker’s matriarchal society and the assorted castes contained therein, it’s understandable that much of the action doesn’t start until we’ve found ourselves fully immersed in the world of the Hundred Isles. Told from the perspective of Joron Twiner – an accidental murderer sentenced to captain a black ship (Tide Child) of fellow condemned, a position he quickly loses to the far more competent and capable (and female (and of a higher caste)) Meas Gilbryn – The Bone Ships spends more time showing rather than telling the reader about the world in which these characters exist.
Using unfamiliar terms for family members (sither for sister, but, strangely, sticking with brother for, well, brother), social and shipboard rankings (shipwife for captain, deckkeeper for second in command), floral and fauna (gion, arakeesian, longthresh) and just about everything else, the reader is forced to rely on contextual clues from Barker rather than any sort of handholding. Which is fitting, given the hardscrabble nature of the world he has created, one that essentially sees little benefit in being alive, regardless of one’s station: Healthy firstborns are sacrificed to the gods and become “corpselights” that help light the massive bone ships for whom their blood is spilled (literally) across the hulls; those whose mother died in childbirth (like Twiner’s) are immediately seen as being of weak blood at thus placed in the secondary caste along with those born deformed or missing limbs (the latter of whom are then forced into almost mocking careers: those without legs are forced to become cobblers; those without arms, tailors, etc.) In other words, one born into this world stands little chance of success or survival from their first breath unless the stars completely align and afford them a remote shot at success.
All this makes for a rather complex social system that, naturally, requires a great deal of exposition. Thankfully, Barker offers said expository details within the context of the narrative so as to ensure the plot moves along – albeit rather slowly at first. The gist of The Bone Ships is that, for centuries, two seafaring societies have waged war on one another, using their massive ships crafted from the bones of sea dragons, to do so. The trouble with this is that the sea dragons have been thought to be extinct for generations, thus depleting each group’s resources in terms of shipbuilding. When word begins to spread of a sea dragon (arakeesian) having been spotted far to the north, the crew of Tide Child, now under the command of Gilbryn (here referred to as a “shipwife” rather than captain in yet another nod to the matrilineal nature of the society), must give chase in hopes of preventing either side from killing the arakeesian and thus perpetuating the never-ending war.
Using political subterfuge, back-alley dealings and the usual assortment of morally dubious characters, Barker sets things in motion as Gilbryn and Twiner go about putting together their crew for what is sure to be a thankless, likely fatal mission to save the arakeesian and, hopefully, the future of all Hundred Islanders. Bringing on all manner of other condemned individuals, they include, in seemingly equal number, men and women of all shapes and sizes. Many of the novel’s harshest characters are women of seemingly Amazonian proportions who instill fear in the hearts of the men with whom they share a ship. But there are also more traditionally fantasy-oriented characters like the gullaime, which is a sort of birdlike creature that can call upon the wind at will to help propel the ships wings, its power the result of it being the progeny of the god bird Skearith from whom all things were made.
From here, Barker embarks on a series of high-seas adventures and battles, all ostensibly in the name of preventing future generations from having to suffer the fates of those currently “flying” (another term favored here in lieu of sailing, the ship’s sails referred to as wings, while the ship itself is referred to in the masculine sense rather than our more familiar feminine) the seas in their bone ships. Much of it serves as a payoff for those who made it past the seemingly endless bits of world-building, and hopefully sets the stage for more action and adventure in the following two books as Barker’s style helps ensure the action is brisk and breathless when it arrives. His approach also makes for some rather tedious passages when there is a lull and the day-to-day of the crew of Tide Child becomes the primary focus. Regardless, The Bone Ships is a thrilling bit of high seas fantasy that sets the stage for what is doubtless to be a riveting trilogy from a tremendously talented and imaginative mind.