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The Bone Ships

By: RJ Barker
Narrated by: Jude Owusu
Series: Tide Child Trilogy, Book 1
Length: 17 hrs and 2 mins
4.5 out of 5 stars (8 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

Enter the Hundred Isles, where ships made from the bones of extinct dragons battle for supremacy on the high seas.

Our hero Meas Giryn must unite a crew of condemned criminals for a suicide mission when the first live dragon in centuries is spotted in far off waters....

From David Gemmell, Kitschie and British Fantasy Award-nominated RJ Barker, author of Age of Assassins.

©2019 RJ Barker (P)2019 Hachette Audio UK

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  • Dianthaa
  • 20-01-2020

Great story with excellent narration

The Bone Ships,Tide Child #1, by RJ Barker is another one of those books that I picked up based on hype alone, and luckily, I loved it. I loved it so much, that this is gonna be one of those gushing reviews.

The worldbuilding is great, the eerie magic lights, the sea-dragon-bone ships and the matriarchal society with some pretty bonkers views. The entire story takes place on and around islands set in one hemisphere of the world, and I’m very curious if further books in the series will give us more info on the rest of the world and the scale of it.

The narrator has such a deep lovely voice, and he does a great job bringing the vivid text to life, one of the cases where I’d recommend going for the audio if you can. I really enjoyed the writing, it has a lot of made-up sailing jargon, but I didn’t have any problems following along, and it’s often quite beautiful and musical, even when it’s just sailors cursing. I found the language sort of playful, a lot of fun with rhythm for instance, which came across great in audio. It also recently won an Earphones Award from Audiofile magazine. There are a lot of made up words that I thought add flavour to the world, most of them are close enough to English, or clear from context, that I didn’t have any problems, things like sither instead of sister, deckchild instead of sailor, different names for the days of the week, etc.

The world itself is dark, which I normally avoid, but because of the humor, the main characters working towards improving this grim reality, and the overall hopeful way characters and their relationships grow, I really liked it. The world also felt very real to me, I think because of all the details of ship life. I can see Tide Child and a lot of the other places they go, and creatures they meet, so clearly in my mind, I almost remember being there.

Joron is the inexperienced, and mostly incompetent, shipwife of Tide Child, a dead bone ship crewed by women and men sentenced to death for their crimes. Luckily for the survival of the crew and ship, the book opens with him losing his command to Lucky Meas, a much more experienced and competent captain. She whips the ship and crew into shape, and draws them into her plan to hunt down an Arakeesian (sea dragon). I absolutely loved everything about how the crew was transformed by having a leader and a purpose, for a rag-tag bunch of drunks to a strong and united crew. Joron’s the POV character, so naturally it centers on him, and his growth, both in his own eyes and those of the crew is pretty damn great.

Despite Jorun being the MC, and really digging his personal journey, he’s not my favorite character. I read someone else saying how Meas is much more like a typical protagonist, and I agree, it also helps that she’s very kickass. But my favourite character is the tragic Gullaim, a navigator bird-like magical creature (windseeker) I liked how otherworldly he was, and the story of his people broke my heart.

I thought it was cool how I listened to this in October and then again in January, so being such a short time between them, I was surprised when emotional moments that got me the first time around got me the second time around.

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  • Amo
  • 02-12-2019

Good story

But I didn’t overly enjoy the performance. I found the gruff Meas’ voice grating and wouldn’t be surprise if an Arrr Jim Lad would have snuck in now and then. Comic pirate impersonation aside, the story grew on me and I quite enjoyed it.

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  • Jaspal
  • 27-01-2020

Great story, grating narration

Characters and story are really good, entertaining. Characters have some depth and there's some interesting development in there too.

The narration is really hit and miss and is just about acceptable: for me it was very overdone with almost comic grating pirate voices and sonorous tones in spades. Every now and then there's a surprising mispronunciation to take you out of the story: (ochre pronounced as okra; bow (the action) pronounced as bow (like bow-tie); lobed pronounced lobbed etc.)

Hopefully the next instalment has a different narrator, if not I'll probably just read rather than listen.

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  • JPA
  • 23-01-2020

Absolute high seas adventurous fantasy

Spot on. Just what the doc ordered. Original and imaginative, action-packed, tense, humourous, well thought out, clever and cinematic. I could go on. Read it!

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  • Katherine Fulcher
  • 25-04-2020

Great so far

Really great concept and language. I like the narrator. Looking forward to seeing how the story develops. I'm not that bought in to any of the characters just yet.

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  • Timy
  • 05-12-2019

Nautical fantasy I didn’t know I needed in my life

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.