The Bone Ships - a grim naval fantasy

  • Posted on: 30 July 2021
  • By: Sevhina

Tide Child is a dead ship. Made from the bones of a sea dragon it's bones can no longer absorb the souls of the sacrificed so it was painted black and given a crew of the condemned. The Black Ships are still part of the Hundred Isle's navy but despised by everyone including their crews. The deckchilder of Tide Child prefer to spend their time drunk until the most famous and infamous Shipwife, or captain, of the fleet shows up and duels Joron for his Shipwife's hat. To his astonishment Meas doesn't kill him but instead makes him her second in command. So starts the strange tale of an unjustly condemned murderer and a politically condemned tactician in a world that reveres women that can bear children free of mutation but also sacrifices the first of those children to keep their ships "alive".

It's a gloomy atmospheric world. Pirates of the Caribbean with far less humor. The world building definitely makes the book, although the writing itself also well done. The PoV is provided by the eighteen year old Joron who is swept along in the wake of the enigmatic Meas. It isn't long before Barker reveals how Jonas ended up on Tide Child but Meas' story is tangled up in the very foundations of the Hundred Isle's culture and politics. As the eldest child of the Thirteenbern, a woman who bore thirteen healthy children making her the most politically powerful person in the Isles, Meas was given as a sacrifice to the bone ships but an accident of nature spared her life. She eventually rose to be the most respected and feared Shipwife of the Fleet but then suddenly she is on Tide Child and none of the crew dare ask how it happened. 

Meas immediately leads them into action against raiders bent on capturing children. This is the very foundation of their culture. Each side raids the other for children to be sacrificed to their bone ships which requires their fleets to maintain their ships for defense which requires more souls. Its an ugly cycle and Meas wants it to stop. The plot kicks off when an ally of hers learns that an arakeesian, a sea dragon, has been spotted for the first time in decades. Every nation will want to kill it for bones to build new ships but her ally suggests that Meas and Tide Child protect it until its migration passes the waters it could be harvested in. One ship with a despondent untrained crew against the world. The wild card is that unlike most Black Ships they have one of the avian Windseekers who can control the wind. Unfortunately, Guillam was condemned because he's apparently insane.

By any technical measure The Bone Ships is an excellent book and I will probably read the next book. That said, I didn't exactly like it and I'm not entirely sure why. It leaves me with the same feeling I had over thirty years ago reading The Black Company which is a classic Grim Dark Fantasy and possibly launched the genre. The world is fascinating, the writing excellent, the plot is interesting, and the characters have depth. I simply didn't enjoy it. I can appreciate it and obviously from the reviews its enjoyed by many Grim Dark fans.