Where do I even begin? The Bone Ships is, by far, one of the best fantasy books I have read this year. Why? Because it has absolutely everything you could want from the genre!
I will outline the book, structure and core ideas (with minimal spoilers!) and then say what I thought!
The Bone Ships is inspiringly original and incredibly intricate. RJ Barker has created a world that is dominated by the sea, rich in mythology and has an intricate caste systems that goes beyond the simple division of gender that dominates the fantasy genre.
The Bone Ships has a very intricate system of power based on strength and ability. Firstly, if your mother survives giving birth to you and you are healthy then she is respected and seen as having a strong bloodline and her firstborn child is given as a sacrifice to become a ‘corpselight’ for the ships (something I won’t go into much detail about in order to avoid spoilers but shivers went down my spine!) Secondly, if your mother dies in childbirth or you are born with a form of deformity, disability or disfigurement you are seen as having a weak bloodline and so are not destined to be respected, become a ‘corpselight’, or even to become part of a ship’s crew. Instead you are given ironic jobs (i.e. if you have no arm you become a tailor) and are made to be ‘stonebound’ (land dweller-less respected than those who are crew.) Though women are often the more dominant in this society, with the mythology being led by goddesses (like the Mother and the Sea Hag) and women being the leaders (status depending on how many children they have had-their stretch-marks being a sign of power ) it goes much deeper than this and I loved it.
Not only is the caste system intricate but so is the world itself. The Bone Ships revolves around an in-depth system of magic and mythology. The people believe in three key goddesses; the Maiden, the Mother and the Sea Hag. Each are respected but the Sea Hag is the dark goddess, the violent one that clutches the dead in the sea. However, the magic and mythology goes even deeper with Meas herself being considered lucky (hence the name ‘Lucky Meas’) as it is believed she is, in some way, favoured by the Goddesses. Moreover, the gullaime windtalker, a bird like creature, is incredibly important to the people of this world. Though seemingly unnatural and usually avoided unless needed, it is highly revered and people are incredibly superstitious in their beliefs towards it (for example, they will not hurt the guillame or even touch it as it is considered a gift from Skearith the Stormbird – God of all creation). The guillame can control the winds in order to aid the crew on their ships and so is crucial to the crew. The main guillame in the story is also an interesting character unto itself and, despite being an unnatural creature, you can help but connect with it and feel for it.
The final key element of magic and mythology is dragons. The dragons were hunted by both the Hundred Isles and the Gaunt Islanders, they compete and war with each other, in order to build their ships. The ships are built in different sizes and a referred to by the number of rib bones used, the more used the bigger and sturdier the ships. The ships are a reflection of the Shipwife and crew and are usually kept clean and shining in order to show off and highlight their status. However, the dragons were all killed and ships were being made smaller or not at all due to the lack of bones available. This story, however, begins when a lone, last living dragon is sighted. Joron and Meas go on a voyage to find this dragon as whoever finds it first will receive glory, but could also end or fuel the war between the islands.
I adored this concept and loved the mythology and magic that fuels this world. The intricate system, though confusing at first, is so interesting and influential that you can’t help but love it. Moreover, the ideas are masterfully executed and there are no dreaded info-dumps, instead you learn about the world naturally and organically through conversation and the characters personal beliefs and superstitions.
Furthermore, the divide in power is original and unique due to its focus on ability (as well as gender), as a disabled person I thought this was incredibly interesting and I loved to see how it panned out and I adored the characters that openly disagreed with this or defied the belief they couldn’t be crew and went on to be shipwife (the Gaunt islanders do not necessarily follow the same idea as the Hundred islanders in regards to deformity and disability)- the concept of a divide based on gender but also physical ability is one many authors would be worried to tackle but RJ Barker has done it so masterfully that it is such a unique way to create a caste system and truly makes the book stand out in the genre.
The story is interesting and engaging and the characters are well developed. The characters are easy to connect with (despite largely being criminals) and are so interesting that every time there was a fight or danger my heart leapt into my throat – these are characters you want to survive but you know that there is no guarantee. The characters are incredibly diverse in ability, looks and personality and are essential to the world-building and the story moves along with them.
I will admit that initially it was difficult to get into The Bone Ships as there is a lot of terminology that I simply did not know because it was a sailing term or a term specific to the world in the book. However, DO NOT LET THIS PUT YOU OFF because boy oh boy is it worth it.
The story is a perfect blend of mystery, suspense, action, fantasy, and even comedy (Black Orris anyone? You’ll love him.) With so many elements blending perfectly it is hard not to love it! This is so original and enjoyable-it is a true star amongst the fantasy genre. I have so many questions at the end of this book and absolutely cannot wait for the next one!
*I received an advance digital copy from #netgalley (Little Brown Book Group UK – @Littlebrownuk – twitter) in exchange for an honest review* https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2956469566